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Chasing Down The Muse: Natural disaster made by human hands

In the distance, the oil platforms stand like sentries between the offshore islands and the coastline. Their stark steel frameworks rise from the sea’s surface, most visible from Laguna on clear mornings or early evenings. At sunset, the platform lights shimmer through the blaze of oranges and reds, indistinguishable from boat masts on the horizon.

Joan Baez’s song “From a Distance” comes to mind, for in the darkness, the sparkling lights on the rigs are beautiful.

While up close, their immensity dwarfs small boats and they appear to me like large poisonous creatures preying upon the water. Their network of rods and pipes and pumps, unseen from the surface, suck black crude from the earth — fossil fuel — and send it racing to the collection tanks, processing plants and refineries.

I whiz past these fume-belching plants off of the San Diego (405) Freeway and am stunned by the chemical maze that tosses burning natural gas into the air.


I am sickened by my own gasoline usage, by the jets that roar overhead, and by the complicated processes that we have developed that lead us to move ever faster.

That’s when I’m conscious. Oftentimes, I just drive down the road with a background sense of gratitude for my own car and the freedom of movement that it lends my life.

It’s complicated. Isn’t it?

The blowout this week of “The Deep Water Horizon” off the gulf of Louisiana brings home starkly the full measure of what we’re up against in this crude oil game.


Our haste to bring more oil to the surface, our nationwide scramble to wean ourselves from foreign sources and our seemingly unquenchable appetite, have once again fostered a disaster.

The stunned environmental community has rallied its best and brightest, but no one seems capable of estimating the long-term possibilities in the destruction of habitat, endangered and nearly extinct wildlife, and livelihood of the Gulf of Mexico fishing fleets.

President Obama, who just three weeks ago approved legislation that would once again open off-shore fields to drilling, found himself recanting. The ugly side, the killing side of oil, raised its ugly face big time.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had hoped that renewed offshore drilling revenue would fill one gap in his broken budget, was in fast back-pedal. The Tranquillon Ridge project would have been the state’s first new oil lease in 40 years and would drilled new wells in state waters off Santa Barbara County from a platform sitting in federal waters.

Irvine Assemblyman Chuck DeVore was outraged by the change in position. He said the governor was overreacting. I wonder if DeVore has been watching the same film footage that pours through my Internet feed.

“All of you have seen … the devastation in the Gulf,” Schwarzenegger said in defending his decision. “I’m sure that they were also assured that it is safe to drill.”

For one small moment, it seems that environmentalism might trump greed. For one small moment, we might jog the memories of our past.

Go back to 1969. An oil rig blew off the coast of Santa Barbara. Dark ugly crude fouled the harbors, the sides of expensive pleasure craft, killed off bird life and stained pristine beaches with black sticky tar for years.


The fallout: Then-Secretary of State Wally Hickel closed down most of the U.S. coastlines to offshore drilling. Earth Day happened one year later, and for a few more moments, an awareness of our human relationship to our planet and brethren creatures was awakened.

Memories are short though, and our crude hunger has continued to expand through time. Twenty years later, in 1989, just as Congress was set to open up the precious waters of Bristol Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling, the Exxon Valdez ran aground. Eleven million gallons of crude oil despoiled the beauty and wildlife of Prince William Sound. Even after the cleanup, even after 20 years of tidal wash and cleansing storms, oil is still lodged under rocks, in crevices and along the bottom of the waters.

The loss of the wetlands in Louisiana would be catastrophic. The potential scope of this disaster is beyond our ability to fully grasp. Those lands, laid down over hundreds of years by silt from the Mississippi, provide a modicum of protection to the gulf coast from hurricanes, and provide sanctuary for a rich and varied wildlife.

Images of dead sea turtles and birds covered in oil are heartbreaking. What of the seals, dolphins and whales that transit the affected areas? What about what we cannot see? The sea columns, the sinking oil, the damage to the entire fishery chain.

There are 210,000 gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico every day. A tentative plan is in place to contain it — within two to three months.

So maybe only 10 million to 12 million gallons — whatever that number means — will destroy lifestyles, habitats, and entire species.

There are 750 petroleum lobbyists in Washington. Exactly how many lobbyists do we have for our seas, their inhabitants and the rest of our wildlife?

I keep hearing Sarah Palin’s voice, “Drill baby drill,” and like David Letterman, I want to know just how that’s working out for all of us now.


CATHARINE COOPER is a local designer, photographer and writer who thrives off beaten trails. She can be reached at or (949) 497-5081.