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When Oil Spills, All Things Are Connected

This explosion of a deep-ocean oil rig comes weeks after President Obama announced his plans to open offshore drilling.
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As I watch the live coverage of the disastrous Gulf coast oil spill -- 5,000 barrels a day poisoning waters that are vital to people and wildlife -- I look past my television screen to my little waterfront studio window. I live on the shores of the spacious, but troubled Salish Sea, right across from the birthplace of Chief Seattle. It was this revered native statesman who two centuries ago said, "All things are connected like the blood that unites one family."

Now the East and West coasts are connected by the worst oil spills to date in America: An estimated four million gallons, which could leak into the Gulf of Mexico; and 11 million gallons, which polluted Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound in 1989. Both spills happened in the spring and those of us here in the Far Northwest well remember the oil-slicked birds and otters, the starving peregrine falcons and eagles, the food chain and fisheries decimated.

School children in Alaska were so traumatized by the oil spill and blackened wildlife that they believed all the birds had died forever. A psychologist friend of mine was hired to fly up to Prince William Sound for grief counseling in elementary schools. These two decades later, Alaska's waters are still not fully recovered. We in the Far Northwest keenly feel the fear and anguish of our Gulf of Mexico fellow citizens. We feel connected to them by the grief and memory of our own experience and loss.

Here's another compelling connection: This explosion of a deep-ocean oil rig comes weeks after President Obama announced his plans to open offshore drilling in previously protected waters off the East Coast.

This Gulf Coast leaking oil rag is an exploratory well. It is not a container ship spill with a known quantity of oil cargo; this is a deep-ocean well spewing 200,000 gallons a day. How will we stop it? If we cannot cap or block the flow somehow, it will take at least 90 days to drill a relief well. Do the math: 90 days multiplied by 5,000 barrels a day.

As Environmental Network News points out, "This is a challenge never faced before." The bureaucrats can debate the differences -- that oil-spill containment and technology has vastly increased since 1989; that the industry is now required by law to have clean-up plans (never mind that BP is unable to clean up its own mess, they must now turn to the U.S. military and government agencies); and the public is again assured of "state-of-the-art" environmental safeguards.

In the live press conference with gathered federal agency heads -- from NOAA, to Homeland Security, to Department of Interior to Coast Guard -- reporters kept drilling -- oops, I mean grilling, "Will this explosion and oil spill affect the government's plans for more offshore drilling?"

Instead of engaging in this debate, the Press Secretary deflected it by insisting we must "stay focused" on what's happening right now. After all, the tar balls, oil slicks, and noxious, greasy strips are seeping ever closer to us: Our homeland, our oyster beds, our crab fisheries, a coastline still vulnerable and not yet fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Who knows what marine mammals are already suffering?

"This is an incident of national significance," say the feds as they finally kick in to take over what British Petroleum has so slowly and surely proven it cannot handle. The Coast Guard says that we must assume a "worst-case" scenario.

So as the oil slides into our home land security, why not engage in the vital environmental conversation about future offshore drilling? Why not now when offshore drilling is the most relevant and we are witnessing the consequences? Because the "Drill, Baby, Drill" advocates are banking on the short-term memory loss of a nation still addicted to oil.

While we may bemoan this tragedy, we are still dependent upon oil to maintain our way of life. So each of us is connected to this spill by our hunger for it. Blood may be thicker than water, but oil is thickest of all. Just as oil darkens our waters, our need for it also obscures our ability to see the future clearly.

The Iroquois nation's leaders made their present-day decisions based on protecting and providing for their next seven generations. One doesn't have to be a rabid environmentalist or philosopher to pragmatically connect a catastrophic deep-water oil-drilling explosion with more plans for such offshore rigs.

Remember the Valdez and the Gulf of Mexico. Then connect the current-day 1,000-plus oil rigs already in our waters with future rigs. Multiply this explosion by that much more deep-water drilling. How many more generations will watch these same fiery images play out on their television screens, their same fisheries and wildlife and shorelines slimed by an energy source that is slowly destroying us and our ecosystems?

The ancient sage of "The Water Way," Lao Tzu wrote: "The supreme good is like water, which nourishes all things without trying to." Healthy waters nourish us; our waterways connect us all. Can the same health and connection be said of oil?

As the oil spill makes landfall off Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, or Texas, we must keep our focus not just on the current anguish and outrage over this leak, but clearly eye our future: Connect the dots, the spills.

Brenda Peterson is the author of Living by Water and the new memoir I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth.