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Of all the environmental issues I have worked on energy has always seemed the most abstract. It isn’t cute and fuzzy and we don’t eat it. It’s the kind of thing we only notice when it’s gone. We know that our activities to source the majority of our energy are questionable (and getting more so), but the specifics easily get lost in the massive grid that separates the reality of energy generation from the light that floods the room when we hit the switch.
It wasn’t until this summer, when I was called out to work as an oil spill responder for BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig blowout that the importance of thinking about where our energy comes from took on a very tangible form. The form was hundreds of terrified, oiled pelicans that I was tasked with keeping alive.
I come by environmentalism as an animal lover. Saving the whales sold me as a kid, and although I’d like to think my understanding of the situation is a little more nuanced by now, my love of animals remains a driving force in my desire to shape a more sustainable world. I have worked with animals for years, and when I became the director of a small non-profit dedicated to saving sea otters, it came with the opportunity to train for oil spill response. I had just completed this training when Deepwater Horizon hit. Within weeks I got called out.
During my work with sea otters I had advocated against offshore oil drilling, for proper agency oversight of such activities when they did occur, and for solid environmental review of oil activity. Overnight I went from trying to prevent an environmental disaster to putting on hazmat gear, and cleaning one up.
I don’t have to tell you that the spill was devastating. You’ve seen the pictures, no doubt. You may have stopped looking at some point when it got to be too much, but I’ll bet that image of an oil soaked pelican is still in your head. Mine too. Pelicans so covered in sticky oil that tar balls formed inside their bills from trying to preen it out. A gull coated in thick, liquid goo. Majestic, obstinate gannets, slowly fading away. More than 2,000 live, oiled birds were brought to one of the wildlife rehabilitation centers set up in the Gulf. Of those, just over 1,200 have been released. Those are big numbers, but to me each individual bird in itself is a story about the tragedy of the spill.
The story of rescuing oiled wildlife is often painted as the single story of hope in a tragic situation—these birds are being given a second chance. In some ways this is true, but it’s a costly second chance. Working with wild animals isn’t like taking care of a cat or a dog. Wild animals are, well, wild. As far as they are concerned, we are predators who have them trapped in an inescapable situation. The stress of handling, on top of the physiological impacts of oiling, can be fatal.
Never had I had such a tangible understanding of the importance of environmental policy, management, and alternative solutions to fossil fuels. Each pelican I washed was a reminder of what I needed to focus on when I left the spill. That didn’t happen until September, but when it did, I set out to learn more about renewable energy and the path ahead.
It’s been a few months since I left the spill, but I still get a disproportionate thrill when I see a pelican fly by. I think back to the oiled birds whose feathers were too soiled to take flight, and I hope that the bird I am watching soar never has to go through that. Holding oil companies accountable, and asking government agencies to follow proper oversight is a step towards that, but so is promoting alternative sources of energy that we don’t have to pay for in pelicans.
There are a million reasons to rethink energy—climate change is probably the biggest. I know more than 1,200 smaller ones, flying around on a second chance.
Allison Ford is a research volunteer at CRS working with Green-e Energy. She can be reached at aford [at] resource-solutions.org.