Responding to the Oil Spill

The Mississippi Gulf Coast still has not fully recovered from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and yet here we are, awaiting another catastrophe. Massive quantities of oil are being released from a sunken off-shore drilling platform, about 5,000 barrels per day. The full impact of this disaster has not yet been realized, but eleven men were killed in the initial explosion, and the oil release is on track to exceed the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
My first reaction upon learning of the tragedy was concern over our former next-door neighbor who works on off-shore oil platforms. I was relieved when my wife verified that he had not been on that rig. My concern then turned toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The coast and its associated wetlands are vital resources for aquatic life, migratory birds, local wildlife, and the region’s economic viability. Now all that is threatened.

A spill (or, as many are now saying, a leak) of this magnitude tests the limits of science and reason. Technicians and engineers are hard at work, but the solution is still uncertain. One proposal currently being considered involves funneling massive amounts of concrete and garbage (described as “everything including the kitchen sink”) into the holes from which the oil is leaking. The problem is that, if the procedure fails, it could enlarge the holes and increase the amount of oil being leaked by 20 fold.
British Petroleum (BP, the UK’s largest corporation) is the majority owner of the oil field where the rig exploded and sank, making it legally responsible for the leak. Mississippi’s governor, Haley Barbour, said that BP is “meeting every responsibility, paying for everything, and that’s what they’re supposed to do.” BP is legally answerable, but apparently the accident was a fluke that could have happened on any rig. The greatest fault maylie simply with America’s unquenchable demand for more oil.
It’s no secret that energy production is a matter of national importance. During the last presidential election, most Republicans embraced the “drill, baby, drill” approach to oil exploration. President Barack Obama was more cautious about oil exploration during the campaign, but recently he also expressed support for off-shore exploration. Now everyone has new concerns.
The problem is that if we cut down on off-shore exploration, we have to replace that oil with energy from another source. The most immediate alternative would be greater reliance on imported oil. Unfortunately, that may involve sending money to foreign regimes that are hostile to the United States (and may support terrorism). It may also mean that the oil will be extracted by companies less concerned about the environment than are American companies. Thus, on a global scale, we are likely to experience more oil pollution, not less. Moreover, foreign corporations — like BP — sometimes drill for oil off of American shores.
Another alternative to off-shore drilling would be more domestic land-based exploration. Many people think that we should be doing more drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reservation (ANWR) and elsewhere. Of course, that would come with its own ecological concerns, and most environmentalists are dead-set against it.
The bottom line is that people need power, and people need a clean environment. Somehow we have to meet both of those needs. That is a pressing but long-range goal that requires a scientific answer. Of more immediate concern is dealing with the needs of the people on the Gulf Coast who have been affected by the current oil spill. That is where the Church may have a more important role to play.
Already, the Archdiocese of New Orleans is involved with several initiatives to help coastal families. It has partnered with Catholic Charities, food banks, and local officials to provide relief to fishermen who are unemployed due to closed waters. More than 200 families have been supplied with emergency food boxes, baby supplies, and other necessities. The archdiocese has also provided case managers, crisis counselors, and other volunteers to assist those who need to apply for food stamps or Medicaid.
Of course, material needs are not the only concern. The archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Aymond, has prayers for those who died in the blast, those injured, and their families, that “God may give them peace in their time of crisis.” The archbishop added: “At these times of tragedy, it is important that we remain focused on God’s love and that we are witnesses of hope.” Prayers are also being offered for protection of the coast from the oil.
For those who want to help protect or restore the coast, on-line charities have made financial contributions easy to make (visit Catholic Charities of New Orleans at But prayer may be the most important thing anyone can contribute. I know that those who live on the coast would appreciate yours.


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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