For those of you who have not seen the film the Age of Stupid, Pete Postlethwaite, puts in a great performance as a despairing archivist wondering how we allowed the world to be ravaged by climate change.
You could imagine Pete putting in a similar performance as an archivist looking back at how the oil industry was allowed to despoil the world too.
You could see Pete riffling through the many, many examples of the injustices and pollution of an industry that operates generally to its own rules.
Even though you would be spoilt for choice for examples, one would have to make the list: The Exxon Valdez.
The 1989 spill, which poured at least 11 million gallons of crude oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, stands as an example of an industry that promised the earth but ended up destroying a place many believed to be sacred.
The destruction of wildlife and on peoples’ livelihoods was on an industrial scale.
Hundreds of thousands of fish and birds died, thousands of marine mammals were killed.
Thousands of cleanup workers got sick, an unknown number died.
In the story you would have to weave the complete cynicism of a company called Exxon that cared more about its image than the cleanup.
You would have to look at how the company manipulated the science and very soon tried to claim that Prince William Sound was clean and safe.
The trouble was that from this one starting point – the spill – you got two different end points. Anyone paid by Exxon essentially trying to say that there was not a problem and anyone not paid by Exxon saying that the effects could last decades if not longer.
I remember sitting in a dark lecture theatre and listening to Otto Harrison, Exxon’s clean up coordinator tell a packed audience of oilmen that the reason that Exxon had flown British scientists in is that Americans believed people with English accents more than American ones.
That is how cynical there were.
Within a short period of time the Exxon-scientists were saying that everything was OK, but all the government and independent scientists were saying that generations could suffer from lingering pollution.
The disparity led the head of the Exxon Valdez oil Spill Trustee Council to ask the question “What good is science if the answer depends on where you get your money”.
Within a couple of years, Exxon declared the beaches clean and upped sticks and left. Only the lawyers were left to line their pockets as the oil-giant fought for years to reduce the size of the damages it had to pay out.
Exxon has repeatedly tried to draw a line under the issue arguing that Prince William Sound was once again pristine.
But researcher after researcher has kept finding oil polluting the Sound. The oil spill may have been twenty years ago but its lethal legacy continues.
There are still around 50 beach segments where a significant amount of oil remains buried.
And now yet another authoritative study has found lingering pollution through the oil that remains trapped in sediments in the Sound’s gravel beaches.
Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, a team of scientists has found that oil just a few inches down is dissipating up to 1,000 times slower than oil on the surface.
They suggested that a lack of oxygen and nutrients in the gravel was slowing the dispersal of the remaining oil.
Researchers led by Professor Michel Boufadel from Temple University in Philadelphia, US, carried out a three-year study on a number of beaches to find out the cause behind the lingering deposits.
His testing over the past three summers in Prince William Sound showed that its gravel beaches consist of two layers: an upper layer that is highly permeable to water, nutrients and oxygen, and a lower layer that isn’t.
The oil is stuck in the lower level.
“You have a high amount of oxygen in the seawater, so you would think that the oxygen would diffuse in the beach and get down 2-4 inches (5-10cm) into the lower layer and get to the oil,” said Prof Boufadel.
“But the outward movement of [fresh groundwater] in the lower level is blocking the oxygen from spreading down into that lower level.”
Not surprisingly, Exxon’s scientists are claiming the remaining oil is harmless.
“Scientists who have studied spills for years know that after crude oil spills you can and will find buried oil many years later, but that it does no harm and does not need to be (removed),” says Exxon contractor Paul Boehm, a chemist and vice president for Exponent, an international consulting firm that works for Exxon.
It also makes you think whether they also see flying pigs out of Exxon’s windows too….