Friday, August 11, 2006

A Different Middle Eastern Oil Story

A long time ago, when I was living in a much smaller media market, I was occasionally tapped to be a talking head on the local news. I would comment on arms control negotiations, upcoming elections, or whichever war was attracting media attention at the time. (It will come as no surprise to learn that I was never asked to comment on wars in Africa.)

In all the years I've been in the Los Angeles area, I've never appeared on the local news. I've turned down a few opportunites, deferred to colleagues on others, and generally decided it wasn't worth the trouble, especially when a producer wanted me to drive to a studio in Burbank or Hollywood.

But, with nothing better to do late this afternoon, I answered the call from Pepperdine's PR people who had a request from the local NBC affiliate for someone able to comment on a massive oil spill in the Mediterranean. I devoted half an hour or so to getting myself up to speed on the story. Here's some of what I learned in the course of preparing for the interview.

On July 13, Israeli planes bombed the fuel storage tanks at a power plant on the Lebanese coast south of Beirut. The tanks were set ablaze in that strike and again in a second strike two days later. The oil that didn't burn--an estimated 30,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, according to Lebanon's environmental ministry--flowed from the ruptured tanks into the Mediterranean Sea. (For satellite photos of the spill, go here.)

Three days ago, the International Maritime Organization estimated the spill at 10,000 tons of oil, a figure that puts the spill at approximately the same size as the Erika disaster off the coast of France in 1999. The higher Lebanese government estimate, if accurate, would mean the spill is nearly as large as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989. In the case of the Exxon Valdez spill, which is generally regarded as the worst maritime environmental disaster in history, oil containment measures were implemented within seventy-two hours of the wreck. Today--nearly one month after the bombing of the fuel tanks--no containment measures have been undertaken. In fact, remedial efforts are currently impossible due to Israel's blockade of the Lebanese coast.

At times, states have deliberately inflicted environmental damage as a means of waging war. The most famous instance of this, of course, occurred in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War when retreating Iraqi forces set 650 oil wells ablaze and damaged another 100. An estimated 6,000,000 barrels of oil per day either burned or gushed out onto the surface of the desert causing almost incalculable environmental damage.

Because of the difficulty of judging intent in cases such as the Israeli attacks, we cannot know this for certain at present, but it appears that the environmental damage caused in the eastern Mediterranean by the bombing of Lebanese oil tanks was incidental to the pursuit of other military objectives. In fact, most environmental damage that results from war is incidental, not deliberate. It is no less serious for all of that.

At last report, 93 miles of coastline, including virtually all of the Lebanese littoral and part of Syria's coast, has been blackened by oil spilled during the July 13-15 attacks. Because the prevailing southwesterly winds have pushed the oil slick northward, Israel itself has been spared the environmental damage. Cleanup costs (which are certain to climb if the cleanup cannot begin soon) are currently estimated at $150 million.

Add that dollar figure and the incalculable damage to the marine life of the eastern Mediterranean to the costs of the current war in Israel and Lebanon.

Incidentally, I didn't get to make any of these points on television. The NBC producer ultimately decided to present a different angle on the story. And, no, I didn't watch the news tonight to see just what that angle was.

[UPDATE: I need to clarify that I didn't get to make my points on television because NBC decided not to interview me. If they had, I would have gotten my talking points in there somehow. I've watched enough politicians for long enough to know that you always answer the question you want the reporter to ask, not the one he or she actually asks.]