After The Spill Oil A Conversation

After the Spill: Oil, A Conversation

By Vassar Quarterly

Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the question of how to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels is a matter of active debate in Vassar classrooms and on the national policy stage. Steven Hamburg ’75, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund; Mary Ann Cunningham, associate professor of geography; and Brian G. McAdoo, associate professor of earth science, sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about how science can help inform policy. The conversation began with a discussion about the spill’s long-term ecological effects.

Mary Ann Cunningham

Steven Hamburg ’75

Brian G. McAdoo

Mary Ann Cunningham: The long-term impact of this spring’s oil spill in the Gulf is the big question right now and something everyone is wondering about. To some extent, there’s a lot of ecological resilience that can be observed. Systems can recover from oil spills, and bacteria can consume and break down oils over time. On the other hand, these things can happen over a huge time span in terms of what we humans can observe. There’s still oil residue in Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez spill, for example, and that happened more than 20 years ago. 

The coast of Louisiana is a really distinctive environment because there are all these wetlands where the biological productivity and the health of the wetlands ecosystem are critical for the long-term stability of the shoreline. For decades now, that’s been something people have worried about—the ecosystem and the marsh grasses that compose the shorelines. The oils now seeping into the grasses are probably going to cause further die-back of the salt marshes. Long–term impacts on coastal wetlands are probably looking pretty severe.

Steven Hamburg: One of the really key things to remember is that the disaster—a spill really isn’t a good word for it because it’s so much more—is exacerbated by the fact that we’ve had 50 years of unsound investments along the Gulf Coast and in the management of the Mississippi River. So the resilience of the system has been reduced as a function of the canals that have been dug, the diversions that the Army Corps has invested in on the Mississippi, and the lack of replenishing soils. It’s really on top of those activities that we have to look at the impact of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. We recognize that we have made some poor choices and we are now, unfortunately, seeing the impact of those choices as magnified by this event.

Cunningham: Yes. My colleague Kristen Menking [associate professor of earth science] and I took a class down to Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina. One of the things the students got to look at was the impact of the salinity gradients on the coastal salt marsh productivity. And it was really striking how important this is. Farther inland there are mostly rain-fed wetlands, and closer to the shoreline they are saltier. The relative productivity is surprisingly greater in the fresher areas. So one of the things Steve is mentioning is the incursion of oil drilling canals that have thoroughly perforated all of the coastal marshes, which has allowed further incursion of salinity into the wetlands, which further destabilizes the system.

Hamburg: We have to remember that the oil economy and the heavy dependence on technology over the past 60 years have transformed our landscape in ways that we seldom understand, bringing increased nutrients to the Gulf, nitrogen that’s flowing in through the Mississippi through modern agriculture. One of the nasty underbellies of that agricultural model is that we’ve increased nitrogen runoff dramatically, which has created what’s referred to as a “dead zone.” It’s really not dead but greatly depleted of oxygen, which has changed life in the Gulf. And in this case, the oil and the nitrogen are interacting and increasing the rates of oxygen uptake. The oil is a source of carbon, the nitrogen a source of necessary macronutrients, and together we’re seeing, at least in early observations, increased respiration in the Gulf waters, which could again reduce the oxygen and have a whole other negative impact on the ecology of the Gulf.

Brian McAdoo: Here’s one of the truly ironic things that comes from this: Following World War II, some of the munitions plants in the Gulf Coast, where they were using hydrocarbons to make bombs for the war, were then repurposed to make fertilizer for the farms that you’re speaking of up in the Mississippi watershed, and it’s those nutrients that are coming down. The modern agriculture industry could be defined as turning oil into food, and, unfortunately, because we don’t have the most efficient farming practices in the Midwest, a lot of those excess nutrients are running down the Mississippi. It’s really a cycle in which oil—the nucleus that is the Gulf Coast oil industry—has far-reaching effects out into the country that come right back down to the acute epicenter that is the Mississippi Delta right now. 

Hamburg: One of the things that story really illustrates is how we have become so enamored of technology that we have lost track of the conservative history that we’ve had—in this case, I mean conservative with a small “c”—that we should use only that which we need as opposed to that which we could have access to. So whether it’s agriculture and the fact that most farmers are in a position to use less nitrogen and still maintain their productivity, or that most of us could use a lot less energy and maintain our lifestyle, the aggregate of that interface with technology is that these problems are occurring. 

Cunningham: Steve, from your position as someone who’s worked in policy and advocacy as well as in science, is your sense that people—the public or policy makers—don’t understand the impacts of what they do, or is it that they don’t prioritize the impacts?

Hamburg: Well, I think it’s both. It’s a great question that many of us are struggling to fully understand. But it’s clear that we don’t understand the impacts of our actions.

Cunningham: So, for example, it took quite awhile for us to understand the dead zone and how it happens or, at least, to fully accept the mechanisms that led to the dead zone in the Gulf.

Hamburg: Right. The big issue is that we need to look back at the farms and how we can help farmers to manage the resource most important to plant productivity, nitrogen, so that they can meet their productivity targets—because we are going to need more food in the future, not less, with a growing population and increasing affluence globally—but at the same time reduce the amount of nitrogen that leaves these agricultural lands. 

Nitrogen is an enormous crisis, not just in this country but also around the globe. We’ve doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen—the nitrogen that can biologically interact with organisms—relative to what was present in the world 60 years ago, yet we don’t understand it. I’ve had an opportunity to talk with senior members of the Obama administration and others in Washington, and it’s not on people’s radar. But there are ways for farmers to use less nitrogen to maintain their productivity. Those techniques have been demonstrated. I will fault the scientific community and myself; we need to do a better job of explaining it. But it’s a challenge. We live in a relatively anti-intellectual environment, and so the attitude is, “There come those scientists again telling us one more thing that we’ve messed up,” as opposed to, “That’s interesting. What are the alternatives? How can we manage more effectively?” 

McAdoo: It seems to me that the Environmental Defense Fund has to walk a fine line. On the one hand, you have to be “respectable” scientists, while on the other hand you’ve got to break things down so that they’re interesting to people. How can an organization like EDF negotiate that space and actually be effective advocates for education without seeming like they’re too one-sided, and also make it interesting so people who need to hear the message will actually pay attention to it?

Cunningham: That is a great question. We worry about this in class all the time when talking with students.

Hamburg: We all struggle with that. The ways that EDF and I personally have been involved in these kinds of issues is that often it’s not direct. So you can educate the grass tops, the leaders, and then you have to find ways of reaching large audiences. So in terms of energy, I’ll use one example that I was involved with. I had an opportunity to brief the then-CEO of Walmart, Lee Scott, on climate change impacts and the science. He’s an enormously talented individual, and he recognized that the science was there but wondered, really, what does it mean for his company and his customers? I used the opportunity to talk with him about compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and needing to educate his customers about the advantages of using them. So, I worked with Walmart to develop an educational display on the aisle end cap, their most valuable display space. It showed their customers how to substitute which compact fluorescents for which incandescent bulbs so they could get it right. 

 Walmart made a commitment to do that, and their sales skyrocketed. And while I’m not privy to their profits from that activity, I’m sure that it made them a lot of money. So that was an opportunity where we weren’t directly involved in trying to educate the public, but we were educating the key thought leaders to get them in to a position to do that. And I think that is, effectively, how we learn. 

How do we work with the mass media? I’ve been involved in conversations with film studios and television studios. I’m trying to get them to see the opportunities to integrate some of these ideas into their programming. I think we have to reach out also in Washington. I’ve been involved in briefing cabinet secretaries and others about these issues, sometimes presenting very fundamental science to make sure they understand the kind of issues they’re working with. It’s a real challenge. Before we can, for example, tackle the nitrogen issue, we need to have a plan for how we can educate the larger community on why it’s important. And that plan doesn’t exist. The scientific community, for 20 years, has been working hard on understanding it and getting to the point where they can say this is a real crisis. But we’re basically just at the starting line in terms of trying to educate the larger public about why there may be a need for change.

McAdoo: I think one of the really intriguing things about the Walmart story is that you managed with one of the biggest corporations in the world to work from within. You’re no longer preaching to the choir, you’re actually getting inside and effecting change at the level at which change needs to happen. 

Hamburg: Yes. Twenty years ago EDF started working with McDonald’s on their excess packaging—it was the first corporate partnership program in the environmental community—and from that came a program at EDF in which we work with the corporate sector and take no money from our partners; all of our staff and efforts are funded from external sources. The real key, the vision, is that those partners commit to working on change, and whatever they develop is public domain so that it’s not proprietary to their own corporation and can be shared across the sector. We work with the leaders in each sector to help them rethink how they do business so that that can be spread across the industry. It’s a model that has been very successful and replicated by many other organizations. We can’t stand outside and complain about how people are doing things; we need to help figure out the alternatives. They’re not nearly as straightforward as we often think. Having been in the classroom myself for a long period of time, it’s easy to say you should do something this other way. When it really comes down to push and shove, how does that really work, given the existing constraints, and situations, and economic structures? It’s about figuring all that out. 

McAdoo: Is there any way that we can turn that attention to the big oil companies—the BPs, the Exxons, and the Shells—to figure out some ways to effect change from within those organizations?

Hamburg: The oil industry is a beast unto itself. It’s a little hard to be a strong advocate for a low-carbon economy within a world where almost all of the profits are originating from the sale of carbon. So it’s really about figuring out different economic models for those companies, just like we’ve been thinking a lot about fertilizer. Should fertilizer companies be making money by selling fertilizer or fertilizer services? You want to make sure your crop gets the right amount of nutrients at the right point in time. How much fertilizer you sell is really not the issue. The metric of success is that your crop has the right nutrients when they need them and nothing more. So why not make that the business of fertilizer companies rather than the manufacturing of fertilizers? In so doing, you change the economic model, you change the metrics, and you change the incentives. 

 That’s a little harder with the energy companies. It’s not impossible, but they’re so big and so carbon dependent. In order for that to happen we’ve got to change how we as a society view energy.

I walk my dog in the morning. I live in a very old neighborhood in Providence [Rhode Island]. I went by a house that’s being renovated very extensively and I was absolutely horrified to see that they were putting in four humongous air-conditioning units. These are all houses built around 1900. We added some air-conditioning to our house when we renovated a few years ago, and the capacity to cool my house, which is about the same size as this house that’s being renovated, has got to be less than 25% of what they’ve put in. They basically used a sledgehammer when they could’ve used a scalpel. That was because the contractors and the architects involved—none of them, I will say, were well informed. They are using technology developed 30 years ago, and we just can’t afford it. Someone is investing close to three quarters of a million dollars, an amazing amount of money, to renovate this house and they’re spending it in ways that are completely divorced from the best technology and the latest thinking. They could’ve afforded a geothermal pump that would’ve reduced their energy usage from what it will be by probably a factor of 10. We can’t survive this way as a society. We have to learn how to spread knowledge and more effective innovation because we are just stuck in the past.

Cunningham: What range of incentive structures do you find in other kinds of corporations? I’m asking partly because of the question about whether we know the impact of our actions or whether we choose to prioritize. There are incentives that help us choose which actions we’re going to take.

Hamburg: For the most part, there’s so much low-hanging fruit, so many opportunities to improve efficiency by simply focusing on their bottom line, making it economically viable for them, or reducing their risk or exposure. One is a direct feedback to their main motive for existence, which is making a profit. And the second one is indirect: when a company is risking some financial and reputational loss because they are doing something that could either be perceived as negative or could create a negative impact. So a lot of what we are involved with is trying to close that knowledge gap and help these organizations understand their options and the implications of what they do. Once they get it, it usually works. The lightbulb case was great. It didn’t take long for Lee Scott to recognize that by selling their customers a more efficient product, it put more money in their customers’ pockets and more money in their pockets. 

Cunningham: So now you just need to find a way in with BP and the other corporations that are doing the oil drilling. 

McAdoo: It’s so easy to be stuck in the past and maintain our ways when oil is as cheap as it is. It’s one thing that has always puzzled me: Profits went through the roof when oil was over $100 a barrel. Now, here we are back in a recession, but oil is at $75 to $80 a barrel right now. Seems to me that the low price of oil is a tremendous incentive to be wasteful. Until prices go up it’ll be a lot more challenging to incentivize the average Joe Blow, who’s got a fair amount of education, who is putting too much fertilizer on his fields or driving his car the mile or so to work everyday to say, “Okay, I’m going to change my behavior.”

It was really wonderful to see changes in behavior here in Poughkeepsie during the increase in oil prices that occurred two summers ago. We actually saw a lot more bicycles on the road and a lot more people walking. One thing that I think would be interesting to see, with the fallout from this particular deep-water incident, is if there is a curtailment of deep-water drilling, a longer moratorium on deep-water drilling, or whether there will be increased regulation that will make deep water drilling more expensive. How that will play out in the global oil market will be interesting. Will prices go up or will that production be shifted to national oil companies that do not have the same environmental regulations that the multinational companies follow? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Hamburg: We resist anything remotely akin to a tax, yet we would need to add some cost to the use of fossil fuels to incentivize greater efficiency. That’s one side, and I would defer to the political scientists and economists to figure out why, in this country, it’s so hard to do that; whereas other developed countries have done it quite effectively and one could say, as a result, are in better shape relative to their imported energy—or at least in as good a shape as we are, despite the fact that they don’t have the energy resources that we have. I think the real issue is why are we remaining so ignorant. I won’t blame that on the oil companies—the fact that we are so slow to adopt new energy-saving technologies, that we can build and renovate houses and do it so remarkably inefficiently. That’s not about comfort. It’s not about self-interest. It’s about ignorance. 

We could reduce our energy use, in broad numbers, by 30% with absolutely no negative effect on our economy or lifestyle. Whether that’s transportation, whether it’s heating, it would have a very positive effect. 

Mary Ann Cunningham, associate professor of geography, uses computer mapping and analysis (GIS) to study landscape change and its effect on habitat availability and water quality. Among other things, she studies impacts of urban expansion on the Casperkill Creek on the Vassar campus and in other Hudson Valley watersheds. She teaches courses in conservation, land-use planning, mapping, and related aspects of environmental geography and has led fieldwork excursions to the Adirondack Park and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. She has co-authored two environmental science textbooks focused on how science is used to examine and, ideally,
to resolve environmental problems.

Steven Hamburg ’75 is chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), where he is considered the public voice for the organization’s science-based advocacy. Before taking on his role at EDF, Hamburg spent more than two decades as a professor at the University of Kansas and Brown University. He has published myriad scientific papers on forest ecosystem ecology and served as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Hamburg was twice awarded Environmental Merit Awards by the EPA and has served as a Charles Bullard Fellow in Forestry at Harvard. He has earned MFS and PhD degrees from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Brian G. McAdoo, associate professor of earth science, came to Vassar in 1998 via Houston, where he had worked as an exploration geologist for Amoco’s (now BP’s) Nigeria group.  In his classes, McAdoo explores the intersections between and among disciplines in geology, oceanography, and geophysics.  His senior seminar, titled “Oil,” explores the historical, political, and technological evolution of the modern oil industry. During the course of the semester, students visit active shale gas production rigs, use state-of-the-art geophysical software packages to characterize an oil reservoir, and produce biodiesel from the Retreat’s used French-fry oil.

The conversation continues as Hamburg, Cunningham, and McAdoo talk about fundamental attitude shifts and community interventions that would help lower the world's energy use. Listen to the podcast.