Eye of Fire: What It Takes to Snuff Out a Burning Ocean
In the “wonderful” world of oil trade, there are more losses than wins.
An ominous shape sits at the center of the waters, discharging turbulent currents and an ejecta of molten lava. Beside it is a hulking structure: an oil platform, the culprit behind the ocean’s incessant burning.
This dramatic spectacle, dubbed the “eye of fire” by concerned netizens, gave a new face to the anti-offshore drilling movement on July 2, 2021 as footage of it made rounds on social media.
The fire erupted at 5:15 a.m. on the sea surface of the Gulf of Mexico, just west of the Yucatán Peninsula, until it was extinguished approximately five hours later. It was caused by a ruptured underwater pipeline connecting to the Ku Maloob Zaap oil development platform, owned by Pemex, Mexico’s state-run oil company.
On Twitter, a Mexican oil safety official declared this “did not generate any spill.” However, it effectively restarted a global discussion on the ethics of oil drilling. Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, writes, “The frightening footage of the Gulf of Mexico is showing the world that offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous.”
Pemex itself can be considered a “hardened offender” in terms of infrastructure-related mishaps.
Pemex or “Petróleos Mexicanos” is Mexico’s crown jewel petroleum company operated by the government. It holds itself in high regard and boasts ownership of the only legal fuel outlets in Mexico. However, the company also has a track record of major accidents dating back to 1979, when Pemex’s exploratory oil well, Ixtoc I, leaked into Campeche Bay, resulting in one of history’s largest unintentional oil spills. In 1992, Pemex was held liable for ten consecutive explosions in Guadalajara, Mexico, resulting in about 252 casualties (some agencies contend there were at least 1,000 actual casualties). 2019 also saw another Pemex pipeline explode in Tlahuelilpan, Mexico, leading to about 91 deaths and dozens of injuries.
Violating government safeguards, contributing to climate risk, jeopardizing job security, and risking human and animal life: these are mere chess pieces in the high-stakes, high-reward pastime favored by the ultra-rich: the global oil trade.
The Real Cost of Big Oil
With an abundance of natural resources spread out over 7,107-plus islands, the Philippines has always attracted more than just eager vacationers. Exactly what types of threats do blue-chip oil monoliths pose for an archipelago like ours?
Infrastructure such as platforms, pipelines, and tankers release a gross estimate of 157,000 barrels of oil yearly. The bulk of organic compounds and other pollutants produced in the drilling process creates an amount of pollution that surpasses that of all other sectors. According to a fact sheet released in 2012 by USAID, the energy sector, which includes oil production, produced 54 percent of the Philippines’ greenhouse gas emissions, the greatest amount among all sectors tabulated.
As an industry that literally siphons life out of the earth, offshore drilling renders our thriving underwater ecosystems expendable. In fact, a study conducted by the Bulletin of Marine Science indicates that 70–90% of coral life within 400 meters of the reef transect around an unnamed offshore drilling site was eliminated. Without coral reefs, our 128 endemic fish species would be left floating on the sea surface, as well as on oil.
Although the petrol industry’s forte lies in exacerbating environmental conditions, solely judging it based on its environmental repercussions is gravely one-dimensional. Doing so fails to clarify another prime currency in the gasoline enterprise: human well-being.
In the Philippines particularly, oil facilities provide various employment opportunities for locals. However, they fail to account for already existing sources of livelihood. A boom in oil drilling threatens to block fishing hotspots, eliminate populations of fish, and place fishermen at risk of hydrocarbon poisoning. The bloom of Petroleum Service Contracts (PSCs) like those of the Malampaya gas field and Galoc oil field, and continued activity of the Department of Energy (DOE) in East Palawan and Sulu’s gas-rich sea basins challenge the longevity of Philippine fisheries and coastal economies. Currently, over one million Filipino fishermen are at risk of losing their jobs.
It has been made painfully clear that the oil industry subsists on unwarranted destruction: it flourishes in the midst of a burning ocean. Yet, the question remains: how has this global, multi-billion dollar, blood money industry kept its head above water?
A common pitfall in tackling the issue of offshore drilling is to treat it as an exclusively environmental issue. The impunity of the oil trade doesn’t just expose how much of our ocean risks being desecrated by oil and waste substances; instead, it further illustrates the global gas industry’s crippling grip on society, and a systemic abundance of loopholes.
Oil chiefs are undeniably among the world’s richest. As established names within the ruling elite, there are a number of factors embedded deep in society that allow them to strategically exploit human livelihoods.
Big Oil’s Seven Wonders
On April 22, Mayor Bill De Blasio and Corporation Counsel James E. Johnson of New York City marched to the New York Supreme Court to file a lawsuit against Exxon, Shell, British Petroleum (BP), and the American Petroleum Institute (API) for breaking the city’s Consumer Protection Law through fraudulent trade and marketing practices.
A month later, a US oil service group put forward an arbitration claim worth $100 million saying that Pemex infringed established agreements and breached the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) treaty’s investor policies. A week earlier, Finley Resources Inc. also hit Pemex with a case, alleging that they neglected to pay for services and honor due contracts.
This onslaught of charges has opened the oil industry to criticism for constantly being pardoned after blunders that have cost and impacted its victims much more than any lawsuit.
One thing is certain: it takes a powerful and complicit system to convince the public it cannot live without oil.
“Big Oil” is a blanket term for the world’s seven largest oil and gas companies: Shell, BP, Chevron, Eni, Total, ConocoPhillips, and, unsurprisingly, Exxon. Collectively, they control an estimated 6 percent of all oil and natural gas reserves. These “seven wonders” have a terrifying global chokehold on economies and polities.
The fight against them isn’t news. Both Big Oil and the anti-drilling movement, which has been around since the 1940s, have sunk their teeth into this never-ending battle.
Tug of War: the Oil Game’s Premiere Event
From the early 1980s to 1990s, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) lobbied then US President George Bush to give the go-ahead for a presidential withdrawal of vulnerable ocean bodies from oil and gas exploration. This came in the form of the OCS Moratorium, which was approved in 1981.
In 2008, however, after 27 years of repeated renewal, the OCS Moratorium was halted by Congress and by Bush himself.
The NRDC then brought their agenda to former President Obama in May 2013, campaigning for a stop to all oil and gas ventures in the Arctic Ocean. After relentless pressure from environmental organizations, Obama completely banned oil extraction in 98 percent of the Arctic and most of the Atlantic before the end of his term.
In 2017, however, former US President Donald Trump, a skeptic of climate science and the Paris climate agreement, installed his America-First Offshore Energy Strategy, which obliterated the protection Obama had given to the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
The years that followed saw a renaissance in trumped-up drilling leases that made the Arctic and the Atlantic a treasure trove for Big Oil, with the anti-offshore drilling movement becoming just another fad.
These accounts show a definite pattern that unveils a way to possibly helm the battle against Big Oil. Ultimately, it is the government that rules over them that has the power to dictate the nature of oil operations. The irony of it all is that the global petroleum complex’s foothold on the powers that be could potentially be a damning flaw.
The solution to global issues caused by Big Oil lies in good governance.
Evidence shows that supermajors have known about forthcoming climate crises ever since 1958. However, they have still jointly spent millions of dollars, backed by government, to blanket breakthrough findings, including those posited and funded by their own researchers, on the climate emergency and what offshore drilling has contributed to it. In fact, BP’s circulation of the first ever “carbon footprint calculator” is just another byproduct of Big Oil’s toxic relationship with information. The notion of a “carbon cost” was a calculated effort orchestrated by large oil firms to twist the narrative and hold ordinary people responsible for the planet’s destruction.
Today there is alarming public disregard for global warming and a counter-narrative to climate change that is sludgier than the oil it protects. But all hope is not lost. Actions can still be taken to right Big Oil’s ill effects.
The Eye of Fire Dances On: How You Can Help
The key to fighting Big Oil is to push not for reform but for total abolition. Lenient measures can’t cure a disease that has such a firm grasp on one of the world’s most exhausted resources and that also upholds the interests of the ruling class. It must be purged completely before the same oceans that have protected us from fires like the one on the Gulf dry up and disappear.
Recent efforts to suppress the distribution of information to the public have captured media interest. Leveraging on this, we must work to unearth decades of sequestered research and keep ourselves informed. Keep alert for unsubstantiated research that tries to convince readers that climate change is theory, not fact. One accredited source of climate information is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body assigned to sieve peer-reviewed climate science.
Donations can also go a long way. Consider donating to the NRDC, a chief actor in the fight against offshore drilling.
The most concrete course of action right now, however, is to vote wisely. Right now, oil and gas exploration is still a novelty in the country. John Mark Bautista, a science research specialist from the Department of Energy (DoE) says, “Roughly only 10 percent of the country’s territory has viable data in relation to petroleum exploration, with the data heavily concentrated in the offshore western side of Palawan and onshore Cebu.” We can capitalize on this and vote for a standard bearer who will speak of the issues surrounding oil drilling alongside issues of poverty and unemployment. This certainly cannot be somebody who has been willing to open up mines that pollute water, kill animals, and poison humans “to cater to Chinese demand.”
Our decades-old knowledge of oil and its uses must be viewed through a different lens. For instance, existing oil wells can be converted into offshore wind farms that can offer renewable energy for all our fuel needs. Large-scale oil infrastructure can also be refurbished into facilities where workers can help produce sustainable energy, observe ocean conditions, and more. It is vital for everyone to unite against the delusion that Big Oil is the only option.
In the words of American biologist and educator Paul R. Ehrlich, “The drilling idea is spherically senseless — it’s senseless from whatever point of view you look at it.”
All it took to ignite the Yucatán’s fiery ocean was a swift and precise lightning strike. Our task is to unite against the industry at the center of the eye of fire and ensure that it is always staring right back at them.
Luis Lagman is a 12th grade student from Quezon City. In his spare time, he is usually sifting through catalogues of Instagram thrift stores and managing his weekly allowance. But these days he also spends his time seeking a balance between his social life and college applications.