The Perils of Petrol: Perspectives on Oil, Gasoline, and the Gulf

Though I haven’t shared the story widely up until this post, our 3rd Coast Connect adventure got off to a perilous start. It all had to do with the fossil fuels that propel the Boudreaux—along with so much else in today’s world—and that have taken a huge toll on Gulf environments.

Before we began our journey, the Boudreaux had been pulled from the water at a Pensacola marina to receive a new coat of bottom paint and for other repairs. In the process, the mechanic found problems with the gasoline generator that required more extensive work. So he removed the generator from the boat to work on it during the first leg of our journey, while we have used a portable generator secured in a corner of the stern deck.

We arrived at the marina on the day of our launch in time to watch the six-ton Boudreaux being moved to the water’s edge by a device that looked like the product of a giant’s Erector Set. The monstrous rig crept along the pavement on oversized wheels, carrying the boat on two slings attached to huge steel beams high overhead.  After the Boudreaux was gently lowered into the water, we loaded our gear, topped up the two 130-gallon gasoline fuel tanks, and made the 40-minute cruise with Dan Webking, the boat owner, to the canal behind his house in Gulf Breeze.

Shortly after docking at Dan’s place, we noticed a strong smell of gasoline. We opened the hatches and Tracy discovered that the fuel line to the generator had been left open and leaking into the bilge area. We shut off the gas line and began a process that took nearly a day, mostly through the efforts of the mechanic, who was called to the scene, of thoroughly cleaning out the bilge.

The experience left us deeply rattled—my initial reaction was to cancel the whole trip—and thankful that we avoided what could too easily have been a catastrophic gas explosion aboard the Boudreaux. Though we decided to continue the journey, dodging this bullet also has certainly has made us more safety-conscious than we might have been otherwise.

Moreover, our close call, along with the Boudreaux’s prodigious thirst for petrol, put the issue of our civilization’s oil dependance right up in our faces from the very start of our journey. It stimulated conversations among ourselves and with others, and couldn’t help but help frame our thinking about the BP oil spill and the larger issue of the human dependance on fossil fuels.

Oil spill cleanup images from Gulf Shores, AL:

Collecting tar balls along the surf line.

There are a world of topics to explore related to our society, oil, and the Gulf. For the moment I will share some of the impressions and discoveries that stand out most strongly from our experiences to date:

  • We saw multiple beach clean-up crews still at work in Alabama, where they are finding tar balls along the surf zone and filtering oil from beach sands using heavy machinery. Workers we talked to said they expect to be busy for at least another  year.
  • Lynn Rabren, a filmmaker who recently produced a documentary with Dan Rather called A Gulf in Understanding (available on iTunes), thinks that oil may be washing ashore for longer than that. His sources indicate that quantities of oil are collected in trenches near the coast, and that this oil will continue to be stirred up and washed ashore by storms and hurricanes in the years ahead.
  • On the other hand, many Gulf coast residents we’ve talked to have said that oil on the beach is nothing new. We have heard multiple stories from adults about their childhood visits to Gulf beaches that resulted in bare feet tarred with oil from walking in the sand. This likely has resulted from land-based pollution, natural seepage, as well as offshore extraction and shipping activities. Our research prior to the trip revealed that more oil enters America’s oceans from stormwater runoff carried by inland waterways than from all off-shore sources combined, including oil spills.  (See for details.)
  • Oil has been so common in Gulf waters, including natural seepage from reserves below the ocean floor, that micro-organisms have adapted to consume oil. George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said he believes that this partially accounts for the fact the impacts of the BP oil spill weren’t worse and that much of the oil is now gone. He also said it’s likely that most remaining oil from the spill is dispersed in tiny submarine droplets spread out over vast areas due to the controversial toxic dispersants that were applied deep underwater by BP—a previously untested strategy. At this point, Crozier is more concerned about the social and economic consequences of the spill than the ecological impacts (click here for an op-ed piece by Crozier on the topic).
  • Dave McLain of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, whose career includes decades of work directing oil spill cleanups in North America and one project in the former Soviet Union, described how the initial efforts to prevent oil from entering Apalachicola bay by relying solely on surface booms were completely inadequate. In his view, these efforts were intended to give the appearance of taking action rather than taking the extra steps (involving a more complex and expensive boom strategy with below-surface elements) that would have been effective. We heard similar stories elsewhere. Fortunately, winds kept oil on the surface from entering Apalachicola bay. Presently, Dave is most concerned about a movement in the Florida legislature to lift the ban on off-shore drilling—in his view a short-sighted strategy that poses real threats to Florida’s tourism industry and that will create many long-term environmental problems.

View from Dauphin Island beach.

We certainly have noticed that crossing the border from Florida to Alabama means a change in views: Florida beaches offer a horizon line without evidence of human activity, while those in Alabama have horizons that are punctuated with natural gas and, farther from shore, oil platforms as far as the eye can see.

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2 Responses to The Perils of Petrol: Perspectives on Oil, Gasoline, and the Gulf

  1. John, this sounds too much like life on the Lilly Belle! Wishing you continued safe journey – run into any of my Audubon colleagues yet?

    • John Shepard says:

      Hi Dan–good to hear from you, and thanks for subscribing to the blog! I look forward to following up with your Audubon contacts when we get over to the Mississippi Delta region later in the spring. Stay tuned…

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