Oil Spills in the Gulf of Mexico Are Not a New Concern

The April 20, 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminded me that thirty-seven years ago I drew cartoons for the Sierra Club that pointed to the dangers of drilling for oil in Gulf waters. Back then I was a monthly contributor to the editorial page of The Sierra Club Bulletin, which was later renamed Sierra magazine. Recently I dug into a box of my cartoons from 1973-74 and located five on the subject of oil drilling in the Gulf.  Two of the drawings were published in the magazine, and three had been held in reserve and never printed.

The danger of oil spills in the Gulf is not new!

In 1937, when Pure Oil company planted a fixed oil drilling platform in fourteen feet of water off Louisiana’s Calcaisieu Parish, they took the first baby steps that resulted in a growing assault on the Gulf, with increasingly sophisticated fixed and floating oil drilling platforms deployed in ever deeper waters. By now, according to the July 7 AP Report, there are 27,800 abandoned wells and 10,500 active wells in the Gulf.

The Florida Everglades and adjacent tracts of land to the north called The Big Cypress are extraordinarily sensitive to environmental threat. This July, the United Nations added the Everglades to its list of World Heritage sites in danger, citing the large amounts of water diverted to cities. It had been on the list from 1993 to 2007 for the same reason and then taken off.

For more than 70 years there has been a tug-of-war in the Gulf, especially in Florida, between oil companies and land developers on the one hand, and groups representing the collective concerns of environmentalists, fishing and hunting interests, and the tourist industry on the other. In 1973, the Gulf shoreline was under added pressure from oil drilling and land development interests after President Nixon declared Operation Independence in October. The Operation was a call to action and plan for developing energy resources at home to offset the effects of a recent oil embargo by OPEC nations. By December, 147 new drilling tracts were offered for leasehold sale in the Gulf of Mexico as part of a five-year plan to aid American self-sufficiency. Seventeen of those tracts were located about 40 miles west of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

That year, the danger from oil drilling directly off the West coast of Florida was noted in the above cartoon.

In several editorial cartoons in late 1973, I suggested that while oil companies were eying the tempting drilling tracts opening up in the Gulf, they still needed to persuade the public that they intended to do no harm. I showed how drilling platforms could be disguised to look like something they were not. Such an idea is not entirely unthinkable, since in some urban areas today one sees cell phone repeater “trees” decorated to look like actual trees, with fake pine-tree-like branches.

The above cartoon, showing drilling platforms disguised as bizarrely-outsized islands sporting a single palm tree, was published in the December 1973 issue of the Sierra Club Bulletin.

Another version of the same concept, shown above in color, was drawn but not published.

For decades, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have lobbied aggressively and occasionally successfully to stall or halt oil-drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico. The cartoon, published in The Sierra Club Bulletin in May 1974, shows a gasoline tank-filling hose as an elusive and restless sea monster off the Florida coast.

In 1972-4, the Club focused its attention on an area in Florida known as Big Cypress, directly north of the Everglades, one to two feet higher in elevation, that is the source of fifty-six percent of its fresh water. In 1972, Florida Governor Reubin Askew had appealed to the U.S. government to save and acquire the Big Cypress Preserve. The Club’s lobbying efforts aided in the successful establishment of the Big Cypress Thicket Preserve in Texas, and Big Cypress preserve in Florida in 1974.

Visit Steven M. Johnson at his website.

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This is to the Website manager(s).

Is it possible to have the MUSEUM OF POSSIBILITIES graphic ad (or icon) back on the front page?

It's becoming increasingly difficult to access Steve's postings.

Thank you.
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