WASHINGTON — Nearly 18 months ago, Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of the ecologist Jacques Cousteau and himself a renowned student of the seas, warned a congressional committee that the U.S. wasn't prepared to respond to potentially devastating oil spills.
On Wednesday, he returned to Capitol Hill for a post-BP spill briefing with his worst nightmares realized.
"The echoes of that testimony are haunting me today," Cousteau said. Now, he said, how the nation responds to the millions of gallons of crude fouling the Gulf of Mexico "is a question, I think, of the soul of this country. Will we continue to exploit and develop resources that are toxic?"
While Cousteau, who grew up around oceans, may be the man most emotionally tied to the disaster in the Gulf, he wasn't the only witness at Wednesday's briefing who's troubled by the remembrance of things past and the missed opportunities to protect the environment.
It was Cousteau, however, who brought moral persuasion and a close-up perspective on the spill. In late May, he donned diving gear and entered Gulf waters already poisoned by a mix of oil and gas and chemical dispersants after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. Cousteau said he emerged covered in a toxic orange mess but emboldened with a plan for the future.
"This is an issue not just about engineering, not just about what roles, what laws went wrong," he said in an interview with McClatchy. "This is an issue about our heritage, what we're passing on to our kids."
An environmental purist but self-proclaimed pragmatist, Cousteau called for a three-pronged approach to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
_ First, give a stronger role to natural resource agencies that conduct environmental analyses.
_ Second, establish specific standards to ensure adequate infrastructure and development, and to prohibit oil and gas activity in ecologically vulnerable areas.
_ Third, with use the revenue generated by risky activities to establish an investment fund to restore ocean health.
Although his opposition to the expansion of oil exploration may have only been stiffened by the catastrophe on the Gulf, Cousteau understands that the United States won't shut off all of its offshore oil production tomorrow.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the U.S. couldn't afford to stop drilling in that area of the Gulf because it's capable of producing large quantities of oil and natural gas.
Later, Cousteau told McClatchy: "You don't get off an addiction by continuing to exploit the product you're addicted to. You get off an addiction by saying, 'Enough is enough.' We stop now, chart a different course for the future."
He proposed planting the seeds for alternative renewable energy during the Obama administration's six-month moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf.
Others echoed his views.
"We've been here before," said Thomas M. Leschine, the director of the School of Marine Affairs at the University of Washington, reflecting on the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Leschine emphasized the need for better risk assessment, which he said is currently dismal.
He echoed Cousteau's plea for better anticipation of possible environmental catastrophes, citing a 2001 Minerals Management Service (MMS) assessment of deepwater oil production in the Gulf that placed the risk of a loss of well control at zero.
Leschine attributed what he called such "myopic thinking" to a lack of transparency and a reliance on proprietary data from the oil industry.
Leschine invoked a term coined by sociologist Charles Perrow, "normal accident" to say that the disaster in the Gulf came about from "the system, not just from the failure of technology."
Dr. Tad W. Patzek, the chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, agreed.
"Horrible things happen when complex technologies and procedures overtake humans," he said.
As scientists worry that the spill will damage the fragile creatures populating the Gulf, experts estimate that as many as 100,000 barrels of crude oil a day are spewing from the runaway well. If accurate, BP's worst-case scenario may be a reality.
"As Mark Twain reminded us, a man's first duty is to his conscience and his honor," Cousteau said. "There is no honor in this catastrophe, and its consequences are unconscionable . . . . History will not only judge us by our mistakes, but by what we to do fix them. So far, I fear that history will judge us harshly."
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