Oil Spill Activism: All Talk?

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Hannah Keyser>Junior>Ancient History>University of Pennsylvania  

If you’ve turned on, tuned in, or opened up to the news any day since April 20 you know that there was an explosion and a fire on the British Petroleum-licensed Transocean drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next week, the rig sunk in 5,000 feet of water, 11 workers were declared dead from the explosion and oil began leaking from the submerged well. Fifteen weeks later, the spill has finally been stopped (on July 15 a controversial cap was installed that has held thus far), BP CEO Tony Hayward has announced his resignation and cleanup has begun – but only after 85 days and up to 184 million gallons of leakage.

With oil washing up on each of the Gulf States and an endless montage of oil-laden wildlife broadcast on news stations, students throughout the country are anxious to know what they can do to get involved.

Unfortunately, as many frustrated environmentalists are finding, the answer is: not much.

Louisiana State University Conservation biology major Jonathan Carpenter is the founder and president of the Naturalist club on campus that led day trips and backpacking excursions intended to inspire interest in biological diversity. At the time of the oil spill, the club had over 100 members. As soon as he heard the news, Carpenter says, “I realized that as the leader of this club that was growing, I had to do something.”

That “something” was contact the board members of other environmentally minded clubs on campus to establish SCHOLR (Students Coalition to Help the Oil Leak Relief). The corresponding Facebook group exploded with 1,600 people joining in the first four days.

Initially, Carpenter envisioned the group as a place to organize volunteers and match them with cleanup opportunities, but quickly learned that volunteers needed to be properly trained before they could participate in restoration efforts. The group then contacted BP, who is contractually responsible for the cleanup, to request the necessary trainers. Although the oil company agreed to comply, nothing ever got done. Carpenter complains of bad phone numbers and unreturned calls. “They were giving us the runaround,” he says.

For now the group is focusing on promoting awareness and fostering networking between other concerned college groups. They bought the rights to the award-winning documentary film, “Black Wave,” about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath, and are hosting viewings throughout the region in hopes of alarming locals about the ramifications of the parallel situation.

Motivated student leaders in other parts of the country like Lauren Ressler, environmental major at Seattle University, have taken advantage of the forum provided by SCHOLR to help plan school year trips to the Gulf. Ressler is the co-founder of the group Natural Leaders, which plans to travel to New Orleans this fall.

“The goal of this trip is to bring back information on how we can help as advocated by the people in New Orleans,” says Ressler. The group plans to accomplish this through creating a video/photo journal, participating in restoration efforts, organizing a 10-10-10 event, and coordinating interviews with locals.

Ultimately, however, Carpenter believes BP’s contradicting legal responsibilities – both to its shareholders and to fund the cleanup – have transformed what should be an environmental issue into a bureaucratic one.

“There’s just too much red tape… something has got to change, we need some kind of amendment if citizens are going to get involved,” he concludes.

Even prominent environmental professors are facing the same issues preventing them from becoming actively involved. However, students and professors hope that the media attention garnered by the spill will serve as a wake-up call to the nation: money and manpower must be dedicated to weaning the U.S. off of oil dependence.

Images courtesy of: tbo.com and hotcoolnews.com.

College Magazine Staff

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