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Michael Klare: Grappling With The Age Of 'Tough Oil'
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is just a prelude to a new era, the
age of tough oil. That's what my guest, Michael Klare, has written. He
says the BP oil explosion was the inevitable result of the pursuit of
extreme energy, a relentless effort to extract oil from ever deeper and
more geologically or politically hazardous locations.
We're going to talk about this new era of oil and the new dangers it may
pose. Klare has been writing about the BP spill for the website
TomDispatch and for The Nation, where he's the defense correspondent.
He's written two books about oil: "Blood and Oil" and "The Rising
Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy." Klare is also
a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.
Michael Klare, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So if BP is just a prelude to
the age of tough oil, what is the age of tough oil?
Professor MICHAEL KLARE (Peace and World Security Studies, Hampshire
College): Well, let's begin by contrasting it with the era that we've
just left, which is the age of easy oil. Easy oil would be the stuff
that's easy to get out of the earth, in large reservoirs close to the
surface or in shallow coastal areas, or in friendly countries that are
law-abiding and nearby.
All of that oil is now gone, and we'll never see it again. So what's
left is the tough oil, oil that's deep underground, far offshore, in
complex geological formations like shale rock or in the Arctic or in
unfriendly, dangerous countries.
That's what I mean by tough oil. That's all that's left on the planet,
so that, to the degree to which we remain dependent on oil, that's what
we're going to have to go after.
GROSS: So are more and more companies starting to drill now off the
shore of Alaska and in the Arctic?
Prof. KLARE: The Arctic region north of the Arctic Circle is
increasingly of interest to oil and energy companies because much of the
world's remaining oil and natural gas is believed to lie there.
Now, off of Alaska, there is believed to be quite a bit of oil. In the
rest of the Arctic area, off of Norway and Russia, is a lot of natural
gas. So the oil companies are very interested in getting at this oil and
Shell, for example, has applied for permits to drill in the Beaufort Sea
and the Chukchi Sea - both of those are off of Alaska - for oil. Now,
those have been put on hold because of the recent developments in the
Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, Norway is drilling for natural gas above the Arctic Circle,
at a place called Hammerfest, the most advanced Arctic production
facility now in operation. And Russia is planning a number of operations
in the Arctic Ocean - again, drilling for natural gas.
GROSS: So what are some of the unique problems posed by drilling off the
shore of Alaska or in the Arctic?
Prof. KLARE: You're obviously operating in an area of extreme weather
conditions, where storms are frequent, and the conditions are extremely
hazardous for anybody who works up there. If things go wrong, it's going
to be very difficult to mount a rescue operation or to address the
disasters, the spills that might occur.
We've seen in the Gulf a massive effort to address the spill, with
thousands of boats involved and tens of thousands of people working on
that. That's not going to be possible in the Arctic. You're not going to
be able to move that kind of equipment up there.
There aren't the personnel, the facilities, the infrastructure, the
installations. So any damage that occurs, a spill, will be almost
impossible to deal with.
In addition, you have very fragile environments. You have plants and
animals and fish that are living at the edge of survival capacity, and
an oil spill will push them over the edge, and many species risk
extinction in those conditions.
GROSS: So what about floating sea ice - and there's plenty of in the
Arctic. Can that present a problem to oil rigs?
Prof. KLARE: Yes, indeed. The Arctic is full of floating sea ice, and
this problem is going to get worse in the years ahead because of global
warming. As the Arctic ice cap begins to melt and disintegrate, you're
going to have more floating ice, and this poses a tremendous danger to
any structures or boats, for that matter, that are out in the Arctic
Ocean. And so any rigs have to be reinforced, have to be very strong to
withstand an impact with floating ice, which can be very destructive.
And even so, some of these are at risk of collapse.
One of the ways to avoid this danger is to build artificial islands in
the Arctic Ocean, like the Liberty Project that BP is building in the
Beaufort Sea, where you actually construct an island out of sand and
rock and gravel so that â and then put the rig on top of that so that
you have some protection against floating ice.
GROSS: So if you're creating your own island for a rig, does that pose
environmental problems for the sea that the artificial island is in?
Prof. KLARE: There's a worry that these artificial islands and other
offshore structures will pose a danger to species that use these waters
for feeding and mating. This is an area where a number of endangered
species of whales come at certain times of years to mate. They come in
exactly these areas of the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea.
So there's a worry by environmentalists that all of this offshore
activity, these artificial islands, will interfere with their mating
behavior and pose a further threat to the survival of these endangered
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Klare, and we're
talking about what he describes as the age of tough oil, the age when
all the easy-to-get oil has already been drilled out, and we're now
facing oil from places in which there are weather extremes, geological
extremes and/or political extremes.
Let's talk a little bit about some other geological extremes. You've
written about how Brazil, for instance - in Brazil, there is pre-salt
oil. Would you explain what that is?
Prof. KLARE: Yes. The pre-salt finds are large reservoirs of oil about
100 miles off the shore of Rio de Janeiro, under a mile and a half of
water, and then a mile or two of salt - salt and rock and sand all mixed
Underneath all of that is a large reservoir of oil, maybe the largest
new reservoir of oil discovered in the past 40 or 50 years, as much as
50 or a hundred billion barrels of oil.
To put that in perspective, the United States is believed to have total
reserves of only 30 billion barrels of oil. So 50 to a hundred billion
barrels of oil would be a huge new find.
But getting this oil out of the pre-salt finds is going to pose enormous
GROSS: Like what?
Prof. KLARE: Well, picture the Deepwater Horizon explosion, all of the
problems that have emerged there in the Gulf of Mexico, and then
multiply that by a factor of 10. That's what I think you're going to
It's deeper underwater and then deeper underground, in a situation where
the geology, the salt field and the sand and the rock, is constantly
shifting. So the piping and the well technology has to be much more
On top of that, all of these fields are mixed with natural gas that has
to be separated out from the oil as it comes up. So you have the risk of
blowouts, as you do in the Gulf of Mexico, but it's going to be much
more tricky and difficult to extract this pre-salt oil.
GROSS: Now, are these operations already in progress, or is this
something that's going to â that's planned to happen in the near future?
Prof. KLARE: The testing has already begun. The Brazilian state-
controlled oil company Petrobras has already conducted test drilling in
the area, and a number of its partners - including American companies
and BP - are out there trying to establish the infrastructure to do
commercial drilling. But commercial drilling hasn't begun yet.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Klare, and we're
discussing what he describes as the age of tough oil, an age where in
order to get oil, you're facing weather extremes, geological extremes or
political extremes. We'll talk more about this after we take a short
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Klare. We're
discussing what he describes as the age of tough oil, where all the
easy-to-get oil has been depleted, and now we're left with oil in areas
of great weather extremes, geological extremes or political chaos.
And Michael Klare is the author of "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The
New Geopolitics of Energy." He's also the author of "Blood and Oil," and
he's a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire
College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
So we've talked about some of the geological extremes that oil companies
are going to now to get oil in what you describe as the age of tough
oil. There are political extremes that oil companies are facing now,
too, and an example that you've written about is Nigeria. What are the
political problems posed for oil companies drilling in Nigeria?
Prof. KLARE: Nigeria is a major source of America's oil. It's the fourth
or fifth leading supplier of imported oil to the United States.
GROSS: And BP is big there, too, right?
Prof. KLARE: Yes, BP is a major producer, along with Shell and Exxon
Mobil and Chevron. So Nigeria is a major producer. A problem is that
most of the oil is located in the Niger Delta region in the south of the
This is a very poor area. It's historically been excluded from political
participation. All of the decisions are made in Abuja, the capital of
Nigeria, which are dominated by other ethnic groups than the people who
live in the Delta region, and all of the income derived from oil
production is collected by the elites in the capital and goes to -
either to their pockets or their private bank accounts, historically, or
to projects in areas that they favor.
None of it, virtually none of it, ever goes back to the Niger Delta. So
the people there live in poverty, and they experience horrendous
environmental damage caused by the drilling.
If you picture what's happening in the Gulf today, that's what they have
experienced for decades in the Niger Delta. It's a very similar area.
It's wetlands. It's swampy area that is very vulnerable to oil spills.
And that's what they've had for many decades.
GROSS: So they've had oil spills there.
Prof. KLARE: They have constant oil spills. The whole area is
crisscrossed with ancient pipes. Flaring goes on, natural gas flaring
goes on constantly. There are spills. The pipelines break and spill out
oil. They're never fixed. So the entire area is riddled with pools of
It kills the fish that they live on. It kills the water that they rely
on for drinking and to feed their crops. So the area is a total
environmental devastation zone.
GROSS: You write that there are guerrilla groups that are protesting the
environmental hazards that the people there are living with and
protesting the fact that they're not getting any of the income of the
oil. So what are these guerrilla groups doing?
Prof. KLARE: Originally, people chose nonviolent protest against what
was happening. Ken Sarawewa was a leader of a nonviolent protest
movement, and those movements were crushed by the government, and
Sarawewa was hung in a trumped-up trial about 10 years ago.
And then people concluded that only armed resistance would be sufficient
to achieve any results. So for the past five years, you've had a number
of armed militias challenging the government.
The most successful is called MEND, for Movement for the Emancipation of
the Niger Delta. And this is a group really composed of a number of
militias, made up of young men, unemployed young men, who harass the oil
companies, engage in sabotage, attack government troops occasionally,
and they've been exceedingly successful in preventing successful
drilling in the area and so have collapsed Nigeria's oil production. And
this is partly why oil prices are so high.
GROSS: Recently, chief executives of oil companies argued in House
Energy and Commerce Committee testimony that the BP oil disaster won't
happen again because there's going to be proper safeguards and
You've been looking at, like, the whole world where there's oil drilling
going on, and gas drilling as well, drilling happening in political or
geological extremes. So you're suggesting a similar catastrophe to the
Deepwater Horizon will be difficult to avoid.
Prof. KLARE: Absolutely. I think that I think that when you engage in
drilling in environmentally hazardous areas, which is the trajectory
we're on, more such disasters are inevitable because we're operating in
places increasingly where the geological formations are unfamiliar,
unknown and where the earth will behave in unexpected, unforeseen ways.
And we can't protect against all of these unforeseen events.
So all kinds of disasters are likely to occur, and global warming is
going to make the situation worse. It's going to produce more icebergs,
more floating ice. It's going to increase the number of hurricanes, and
all of this will threaten offshore oil drilling in particular.
GROSS: Are there national policies that have helped lead us to where we
are now and the problems that we face, drilling for oil?
Prof. KLARE: Yes, Terry. The U.S. government, under a series of
administrations, has favored moving in this direction. And we've had an
opportunity to move in other directions but chose otherwise.
I speak for example of the 2001 energy review conducted by President
Bush and Vice President Cheney, the national energy policy that was
announced on May 17, 2001, which called not for a radical move towards
energy alternatives but rather the acceleration of reliance on fossil
fuels and nuclear power.
And because we're running out of easy oil and gas and coal, it called
for government assistance to facilitate the extraction of unconventional
oil and gas, by which they meant Arctic oil and gas deep offshore and
geologically unconventional, like shale oil and gas.
So this is the path that the Bush Administration set us open, and it led
to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April.
GROSS: Just three weeks before the Deepwater disaster, President Obama
came out in favor of more offshore drilling and said that the areas of
the Atlantic, Eastern Gulf and Alaskan waters would be open to oil and
gas drilling for the first time. Was that a change in his point of view?
Prof. KLARE: No. He made it very clear, even during the presidential
campaign, that he was not religiously opposed to all offshore drilling.
He always held out the possibility that he would permit this, that this
would be an option, as part of a move to reduce U.S. reliance on
imported oil for national security reasons and also as a bridge towards
greater reliance on petroleum alternatives, which he says is going to
take a very long time.
And he reiterated that in his State of the Union address this past
January. So it wasn't a total surprise that he might allow this. What
was surprising was the sweeping nature of his March 31st announcement.
Not only did he expand the areas of the Gulf of Mexico that would be
open to offshore drilling, but he included large areas off of Alaska and
parts of the Atlantic Ocean. This was even larger than the oil companies
GROSS: Do you feel like you understand why he did that?
Prof. KLARE: I think in part, he saw this as a tactical ploy, to gain
support in the Senate for a climate change bill that he considers
terribly important. And I understand in this day and age, in this
political environment, you have to make tradeoffs of various sorts.
And I think he also understands the agonizing position we're in in this
country, where we're heavily dependent on imported oil, and that gets us
into wars in the Middle East, and he wants to get us out of dependence
on important oil, and the fact that we simply are not moving swiftly
enough towards the development of energy alternatives of the renewables
that are eventually going to save us from this mess.
So what are you going to do in those circumstances? You have to give
somewhere, and I think he decided that more offshore drilling was the
best place to give. I'm sure now he thinks he made a terrible mistake,
but I think that's the calculation that he made.
GROSS: My guest, Michael Klare, will be back in the second half of the
show. His latest book is "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New
Geopolitics of Energy." Iâm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Klare.
We're talking about what he describes as the age of tough oil, the era
we've entered now that easy-to-access oil reserves have been depleted.
In this new era, energy companies are extracting oil from ever deeper
and more geologically or politically hazardous locations.
Klare says the BP disaster is just one example of what can go wrong in
this new era. Klare has been writing about the Gulf oil disaster for the
website TomDispatch and for The Nation. His latest book is "Rising
Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Oil."
Prof. KLARE: Would you spell out for us an example of what you think is
a disaster waiting to happen that is different from the disaster that
we've just witnessed and that we're still witnessing with the BP
Prof. KLARE: Okay, I'm very concerned about drilling off of Newfoundland
and Labrador in what's called Iceberg Alley, the Canadian Maritime
Provinces. This is an area where the Titanic sank in 1912. This is where
we're now putting oil-drilling rigs.
I just think that this is asking for trouble. These rigs like the
Hibernia Platform are supposed to be reinforced against collision with
an iceberg, but I just can't imagine that you can reinforce an oil
platform sufficiently to withstand an impact with a giant iceberg.
And bear in mind that the Hibernia Platform is sitting at a spot where,
in 1982, the predecessor, the drilling rig that was testing this site,
called Ocean Ranger, sank, and 84 crew members aboard lost their lives
in that very location in a massive storm.
So we know that storms and icebergs are prevalent in this area, yet out
of desperation, out of our desperate need for more oil and gas, we're
going to put more oil rigs out in that dangerous area.
GROSS: Okay, so say your scenario happens, and an iceberg hits a rig
there. What kind of damage do we face?
Prof. KLARE: Well, the Hibernia Platform, for example, is a giant,
hollow, steel column that sits on the ocean floor and inside, it can
contain a million barrels of oil. That's about three or four times as
much oil that was on the Exxon Valdez when it sank.
So imagine if an iceberg ruptured that container, and all of that oil
spilled out of it. Meanwhile, all of the underground wells that connect
to the Hibernia could also be destroyed in a major storm if the Hibernia
So you would have multiples of the Exxon Valdez oil spilling out into
the North Atlantic. Now, this is called the Grand Banks. This is the
most prolific fishery in the entire world. This is where the world's cod
fishing began, which made New England prosperous, which fed Europe for
centuries. So to have this kind of oil spill in the Grand Banks would be
catastrophic for North Atlantic fisheries.
GROSS: You've outlined so many, like, political and environmental
hazards of the kind of deepwater drilling that companies are doing now
and the drilling in politically war-torn places. Is there a best-case
scenario? In other words, is there a way that oil companies can continue
to drill in these extreme circumstances in an age where the easy oil has
already been extracted? Where they can do that and still keep things
relatively safe environmentally?
Prof. KLARE: You know, my own view...
GROSS: A lot of oil companies will say, you know, look, if we just,
like, have better safeguards, and if we actually enforce those
safeguards, we'll be okay.
Prof. KLARE: My own view is that there isn't any safe, clean future for
oil in the years ahead. Increasingly, we're going to be running out of
the wells that we've relied on, the reservoirs we've relied on all these
years in the safe, easy places, and increasingly, we're going to have to
rely on oil and gas from the more hazardous locations.
So what the oil companies should be doing is investing in energy
alternatives, and I don't see them doing that. I see them investing in
the technology to drill in the Arctic and in deeper and deeper waters.
So what they really have to do is make a change in strategy to say that
we will continue producing oil but only as an interim step as we move in
a new direction.
GROSS: What are the financial problems that you think are preventing oil
companies from investigating energy alternatives instead of sinking most
of their money into risky oil drilling?
Prof. KLARE: I think it's a problem of sunk costs. If you have
refineries, if you've invested billions, trillions of dollars, really,
when you add it all up, in oil refineries and oil pipelines and oil gas
stations and all of the rest, you want to maximize the return on
investment of those sunk costs.
So even though you may be spending a lot of money to produce oil in the
Arctic or the deep waters of the Gulf, you can bring it to those same
refineries that you built a quarter of a century ago rather than
investing in a new technology, which will require an entire new
infrastructure. And I think that's what's holding them back.
GROSS: Do you think that the explosion and spill in the Gulf is leading
either oil companies or the Obama administration or Congress to rethink
energy policy, safeguards, et cetera?
Prof. KLARE: Indeed, I do think that the oil spill in the Gulf is going
to lead to some change in government policy. It will certainly lead to
greater oversight of offshore drilling. There's no question about that.
We've seen the breakup of the Minerals Management Service. So you won't
have the same collusion between the regulators and the oil companies,
and that's a good thing. And I hope it will lead to a greater
investment, greater emphasis on the development of energy alternatives.
But that's the part that I worry about right now in the current economic
climate, where Congress is reluctant to add to the government deficit by
spending new money.
GROSS: What about oil companies? Do you think that they're more
concerned about safeguards? Do you see oil companies changing in the
future? Or do you think that on the whole, they have the safeguards in
Prof. KLARE: Well, I do think that the oil companies are very concerned
about safety and safeguards, and as a result of this experience, they're
going to be even more careful about that in the future. There's no
question about it.
For example, Exxon Mobil, after the Exxon Valdez accident, really did do
a sweeping overhaul of its safety procedures and by all reports has
become much more careful about that and is a much safer place to work.
So yes, I would imagine they'll be more careful about this in the
I'm not blaming the companies as being irresponsible. My point is that
we're at a time in the history of energy where oil is no longer going to
be an easy source of fuel to obtain, and the more we go out into the
future, it's going to be more hazardous no matter what. It's built into
the situation, and the oil companies can't avoid that.
GROSS: Well, Michael Klare, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. KLARE: It's been my pleasure, Terry, always.
GROSS: Michael Klare is the defense correspondent for The Nation and
writes for the website TomDispatch. He's a professor of peace and world
security studies at Hampshire College. You can read an excerpt of his
book, "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy,"
on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, the impact of the BP oil spill on wildlife in the Gulf. This
is FRESH AIR.
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How Endangered Species Are Faring In The Gulf
TERRY GROSS, host:
The BP oil spill has been disastrous for wildlife in the Gulf, like sea
turtles and the brown pelicans. My guest, Doug Inkley, is the senior
wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. He's an expert
in endangered species conservation and wetlands conservation.
Doug Inkley, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of the damage, so
far, to wetlands and wildlife.
Mr. DOUG INKLEY (Senior Wildlife Biologist, National Wildlife
Federation): Well, we're still counting the toll. One of the problems
with the BP oil spill is that the major impacts are occurring out of
What we're seeing on the surface, such as the oiling of the wetlands or
these terrible pictures of pelicans that were caught up in the oil, that
is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The fact of the matter is this oil spill is a mile deep, and dispersants
are being added to it so that oil is dispersing throughout the entire
water column and having probably a huge effect on the marine wildlife.
Meanwhile, up on the surface, we do see damage. We see significant
damage. We see oil on hundreds of acres of wetlands. We see well over
1,000 birds killed. We recognize that we already have a significant toll
on wildlife. But we are not being able to measure what's happening
underwater, where I'm very concerned about that.
GROSS: Are you afraid that certain species are going to be totally wiped
Mr. INKLEY: What I am concerned about here is that we are probably
pushing closer to the brink of extinction several species. In
particular, I'm talking about the sea turtles.
We have five species of threatened and endangered sea turtles that
frequent the Gulf of Mexico. And the problem with an endangered or
threatened species is that every individual counts. So a dead sea
turtle, especially an adult that may take 20 years to mature, is
removing an animal from the breeding population for a very long time.
GROSS: Why are the sea turtles so vulnerable?
Mr. INKLEY: Well, one reason the sea turtles are so vulnerable to this
oil spill is it's right in the middle of where they frequent. They're
there all the time.
Two: Studies have shown that the sea turtles do not recognize oil for
what it is, and they do not know how to avoid it. So they'll just
surface in the oil as if it were the natural water surface.
A third reason is that the tar balls that float in the water can have an
appearance of looking somewhat like jellyfish, and many sea turtles eat
jellyfish. So the problem is that the sea turtles actually ingest the
oil when they're going about their normal processes.
But that's not all.
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. INKLEY: There's one more problem here, and that is that this right
now is the nesting season for the sea turtles. They're naturally
crawling up on the beaches - they have been for the last probably month
or two - depositing their nests of about 100 eggs and then going out to
Well, those hatchlings are beginning to hatch out of the eggs now and
crawl into the Gulf, where they expect to encounter pristine waters and
plenty of food, but that's certainly not what they're going to encounter
GROSS: So there's like a whole generation that probably won't survive.
Mr. INKLEY: We have the possibility that this year's crop of sea turtle
hatchlings will not survive in the area proximal to the oil spill.
That's a very real possibility not only for sea turtles, but also for
some of the sea birds that are in the area, such as the brown pelicans.
We could lose a very significant portion of the young that normally
would be brought into the population this year.
GROSS: How old do sea turtles live to?
Mr. INKLEY: Oh my gosh, sea turtles can live to be 30, 40, 50 years old.
It's a very interesting population dynamics for sea turtles that they
lay quite a few eggs during their lifetime, but only a few make it to
adulthood; and those that do make it to adulthood usually survive for
GROSS: Now something else I've heard about the sea turtles is that some
of them are basically being burned alive by the oil burns, by attempts
to burn off part of the oil.
Mr. INKLEY: Yes, we're very concerned about that. What's happening is
that the boats are dragging these lines and trying to circle the oil
that's floating the surface to concentrate it, and then it is lit so it
can be burned to burn the oil off of the surface.
And when these oil slicks are kind of rounded up by the boats and pushed
into one area, the sea turtles and other creatures can get stuck in
them, and we've heard reports that captains were not allowed to retrieve
any marine life, such as sea turtles, that they saw and that the areas
were actually lit on fire. So that's certainly not a good sign for the
So we're probably having a lot of sea turtle mortality and other
wildlife mortality that we're never even seeing.
GROSS: What makes sea turtles special?
Mr. INKLEY: Seat turtles are special in my mind because they are -
they're such neat critters. If you've ever seen one â I've been very
fortunate in my lifetime that I've seen a sea turtle crawl out of the
ocean on the coast of Georgia, many years ago, and crawl up on the beach
- this historic, prehistoric-looking creature, which it really is - and
lay its eggs laboriously, some hundred or so, about the size of a Ping-
Pong ball - and then crawl back into the sea. It was something that I
obviously cherish and remember from my childhood.
But they're so endangered, and they have such a unique lifestyle, but
we've had a huge impact on them around the world. All the sea turtle
species in the world are threatened or endangered. And it's because of
people over-consuming them, such as going to the beaches and taking
their eggs for food. No regulation of that or no prohibiting of that in
certain places. We're trying to get a better handle on that now, or to
stop those practices.
Unfortunately, they've been caught in the nets of fisherman. In
particular, what was damaging for a number of years was shrimp trawlers.
They would pull their trawlers, their nets, beneath the surface for
quite some period of time, and the sea turtles would get caught in them
and drown. But through the requirement of the use of TEDs, called turtle
excluder devices, TEDs, the National Wildlife Federation and others
worked very hard to require the fishermen to use, and that's helped save
a lot of turtles.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Doug Inkley, and he's the
senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, and we're talking
about the impact of the oil catastrophe on wildlife and wetlands.
The brown pelican has become a symbol of the spill's devastation, and
the brown pelican is also Louisiana's state bird. What's particularly
tragic about the brown pelican, as a lot of people know, it had just
been taken off the endangered species list last November, and now it's
being totally threatened again.
The reason why it had headed toward extinction was because of DDT, the
pesticide. So it must be particularly upsetting to you to see what's
happening to the brown pelican now.
Mr. INKLEY: Well, it does concern me greatly, because the biologists
worked really hard to help the species recover. The bird has recovered
along the Atlantic Coast, along the Pacific Coast and on the Gulf Coast,
And then we have this BP oil spill, and wham, there's a new problem in
the Gulf of Mexico for this particular species. And it couldn't have
happened at a worse time because it happened right at the beginning of
the breeding system.
The adult pelicans can get oil on them if they're still able to fly and
get back to the nest, and they incubate their eggs. Then they can
unintentionally rub the oil off of their feathers onto the eggs, and
that's toxic to the eggs. It will kill them.
But it's even worse than that, and I'm not trying to exaggerate here at
all because what really happens is that these eggs have now hatched,
which means that instead of having one or two mouths to feed, these
adult pelicans now have two or three young in the nest that they also
have to feed.
So rather than sitting around incubating their eggs all day, they're
very active, and they're out foraging, looking for a lot of food. Which
means that they have a much higher probability of coming in contact with
oily water and not being able to fly and get back to the nest â either
the bird dies or hopefully is caught and tried to be cleaned up and
released again â but by the time it's released and back in the wild, its
chicks will be dead.
GROSS: And the pelicans probably also have a lower probability of
finding food to feed the baby pelicans.
Mr. INKLEY: Well, that's exactly right, and what you're talking about
there is we've circled right back to my major concern, which is the food
chain effects. What's happening? Are there going to be enough fish for
the pelicans to find? Are there going to be enough fish for the dolphins
to find? Are there going to be reduced populations of shrimp, et cetera,
in the future?
We already know from a previous experience that the effects of an oil
spill like this can last for years if not decades. The Exxon Valdez
spill in Prince William Sound occurred in 1989. And what's happened now
is that we've realized that some 21 years later, the herring population
- the fish, the herring population - has still not recovered. So we have
to recognize that there could be some very long-term effects of this oil
GROSS: My guest is Doug Inkley, the National Wildlife Federation's
senior wildlife biologist. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Doug Inkley, and he's the senior scientist with the
National Wildlife Federation, and we're talking about the impact of the
oil spill on wildlife and wetlands.
I have to say I really love pelicans. I've spent several summer
vacations in a part of California that has a lot of pelicans, and
they're such magnificent creatures. And they look to me like they're
from prehistoric times, because their really large, fringed wings look â
they really look like they're from the dinosaur era, like they're
related to pterodactyls.
Mr. INKLEY: Yeah, they do look like that, don't they?
GROSS: Are they that old?
Mr. INKLEY: They actually are one of the more primitive species of
birds, when you look at the taxonomic classification for them.
Fortunately, this oil spill is not going to really affect them on the
Gulf or Pacific Coasts â excuse me, the Atlantic or the Pacific Coast,
but certainly, the total impact remains yet to be seen in the Gulf
GROSS: We've seen kind of heartbreaking pictures of oiled pelicans being
cleaned. And the idea is that once they're brought back to a state of
health, and the oil is clean that they can thrive again. But really,
what happens after they're cleaned? I mean, are they sent back out into
the same oiled area that they were rescued from?
Mr. INKLEY: It's a lot more complex than simply capturing an animal that
has oil on it, washing it off and returning it to the wild. There are
wildlife veterinarians. If there's broken bones, they can set them. They
can give every individual animal a checkup to make sure that it's okay,
and they don't release it until such time as they deem that it is
They are releasing most of the animals at a remote site from where they
were captured, which of course is appropriate since we still have a huge
amount of oil present in the Gulf and will continue to do so through at
least August, given the projections for the relief wells.
So some of the animals are being taken to other sites, such as Texas or
Florida, and the animals are being released there. I know that's been
done with the brown pelicans.
GROSS: So when pelicans are released to a different location than they
came from, are they confused about where they are and what to do?
Mr. INKLEY: Well, you bring up a very good point because birds, just
like you and I, they know their home territory. When you go out on the
street, you know where to go for food. You know where to go to sleep at
Well if you take a bird â you've captured it, you've cleaned it, you
move it 500 miles away, and you release it â it doesn't know where the
best feeding areas are. It doesn't know where to roost at night in a
safe place away from predators.
So it really is very challenging to be successful in this program. But I
believe that we have to make every effort that we can. After all, we're
the people that â we're the cause of this problem in the first place,
the oil spilling, and it was mankind that brought it upon them, and we
have an obligation to try and help them out.
But it is a challenge. Even a bird that is released, that looks
perfectly healthy, may have what we call sub-lethal effects to it. For
example, mallards that ingest or eat oil, albeit unintentionally, their
behavior can be changed such that they don't actually properly go
through the entire mating process, and therefore, they're not able to
So the bird looks fine, but it may not be fine in the way that it's
functioning. Its immune system could be depressed.
So there are lots of concerns, but oftentimes, birds and other animals
have been returned to the wild after being oiled and have been
documented to breed successfully.
GROSS: Are dolphin at risk from the oil spill?
Mr. INKLEY: Well, dolphin are at some risk. It's been fortunate that
while there have been some - more than 50 dolphins that have been found
dead since this oil spill started - that at least the numbers are not as
high as with the sea turtles. For some reason, the sea turtles seem to
be much more susceptible. I'm concerned with the dolphins about the
long-term effects in terms of the food chain.
But there's another mammal species that I've very worried about, more so
than the dolphins, to be honest with you, and that is, you know, the
This resident population of sperm whales lives right at the edge of the
outer continental shelf, where it drops off from several hundred feet
deep down to a mile or more deep at the bottom of the Gulf.
They dive down there to feed. They feed on that drop-off cliff, if you
will, and where should this oil spill be occurring but right at the
bottom of that steep drop-off a mile deep.
This is where the animals spend a great amount of time, and it's been
documented that they especially like to hang around the outflow of the
Mississippi River because that's where a lot of nutrients come down the
river and help feed the life that's in the Gulf, and so it's part of the
food chain, fertilizing it, if you will. But this is exactly where the
oil spill has occurred.
GROSS: Sperm whales have such a â they're big, and they have such a big
body surface. Does that make them any more or less vulnerable?
Mr. INKLEY: Well, they do have a big body surface. What I have heard
reports of, is that the animals seem to be surfacing to breathe in the
slick itself, as though they're taking no natural aversion to it.
Well, remember, they're breathing through their blowholes, and the
blowholes are right down there at the surface of the water where the oil
When I was on the Gulf of Mexico, I stopped at one point 10 miles from
shore, still 50 miles from the spill site, and all around me was a half-
inch thick of this terribly odiferous, black, thick oil. And we had to
wear face masks.
Now, we're asking these sperm whales to breathe in this stuff without
face masks, if you will, and so they're vulnerable to the fumes. It can
cause burns. It can cause toxic chemicals to build up in them when
they're breathing it in.
And think about these animals. They have special adaptations to allow
them to dive a mile deep into the ocean. What's happening when their
capacity to take oxygen in is impaired by breathing of these vapors. Is
it affecting their ability to stay down for long periods of time?
We do know that one sperm whale has been found dead since the beginning
of the oil spill. It was some 70 or so miles south of the oil spill
site, and studies have yet to be completed to determine whether or not
oil had anything to do with the death of this animal. It's still
unknown, but it is of concern to me.
GROSS: Doug Inkley, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. INKLEY: Well, thank you very much.
GROSS: Doug Inkley is the National Wildlife Federation's senior wildlife
biologist. After we recorded our interview, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service announced a plan to find sea turtle nests, which are now filled
with eggs, and move them out of the range of oil and later release the
baby turtles on the east coast of Florida. Doug Inkley estimates there
are between 800 and 900 sea turtle nests in the Gulf, which an average
of 100 eggs in each nest.
You can find a photo gallery of brown pelicans in the Gulf on our
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