Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Maybe this oil spill will stick

By John D. Sutter, CNN
April 4, 2013 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Spilled crude oil is seen in a drainage ditch near evacuated homes in Mayflower, Arkansas, on Sunday, March 31. An Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying Canadian crude oil ruptured on March 29 causing the evacuation of about two dozen homes. Mayflower residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the company. Spilled crude oil is seen in a drainage ditch near evacuated homes in Mayflower, Arkansas, on Sunday, March 31. An Exxon Mobil pipeline carrying Canadian crude oil ruptured on March 29 causing the evacuation of about two dozen homes. Mayflower residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the company.
HIDE CAPTION
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
Arkansas oil spill
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An Arkansas oil pipeline on Friday spewed crude into a neighborhood
  • John Sutter: Spills like this should cause us to take stock of energy policy
  • He says we are too quick to forget incidents like this and the BP disaster
  • Sutter: It's time to accelerate our move to alternative sources of energy

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a human rights and social change columnist for CNN Opinion. E-mail him at CTL@CNN.com or follow him on Twitter (@jdsutter), Facebook or Google+.

(CNN) -- Maybe you've seen the video by now -- the YouTube clip where a man drives through a neighborhood in Arkansas and films a lawn that seems to be burping oil.

If not, you should check it out.

Beware, though: I've had a hard time getting the 33-second snippet out of my head. It's not necessarily the scene, although that's part of it. For me, it's the smell.

About halfway through the clip the videographer says, "the smell is unbelievable." That's not the liveliest description, to be sure. But those words were all it took to transport me back to a boat on the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 -- bobbing on what seemed to be an endless sea of oil after the BP spill. The air's acidic tang stuck in my nose and on my tongue. I remember taking a drink of water later that day, firmly back on the shore. It still tasted like gas.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

The Mayflower, Arkansas, spill is nothing compared to the Gulf disaster, of course. Fourteen ducks, two turtles and one muskrat were oiled as a result of the Friday spill, according to ExxonMobil. Two ducks died. About two-dozen homes were evacuated. The full toll of the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster (the news media started calling it that because "spill" wasn't big enough to be accurate) is still being tabulated, but the numbers are of another magnitude: 210 million gallons of oil, as well as 464 oiled sea turtles and 8,567 affected birds, many of them dead, according to an April 2012 report compiled by two federal agencies and five states.

Both incidents, however, are pieces in a bigger puzzle.

They highlight, once again, that America is addicted to fossil fuels and needs to invest more seriously and urgently in alternatives like wind, solar and nuclear.

These events never seem to really stick in our collective memory.

But they should.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



If they did, they would inform our decision-making.

The way things work now, oil spills are seen by some politicians as expected -- as externalities of our condition, like lung cancer to a smoker.

U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, an Arkansas Republican, reportedly told a local radio station on Wednesday that we have oil pipeline accidents "just like we have car accidents" and that he supports further development of the system that caused the spill in his state.

How silly, right?

Rivers of oil in Arkansas town
Imagine this much oil in your driveway

We shouldn't expect oil spills to be part of modern reality.

There are much better ways forward.

Environmental groups are right to use the Arkansas spill as a cautionary tale -- as one of many reasons that the Obama administration should reject a proposed pipeline, called the Keystone XL, which would carry this risky type of crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast of the United States for processing.

The connection isn't immediately clear, but the Exxon Pegasus pipeline that leaked in Arkansas was carrying the same type of "oil sands" crude that the Keystone pipeline would. (Slight detour here, but who in their right mind names a dirty, underground pipeline after Pegasus, the mythical, flying horse? Hat tip to Salon's Sally Kohn for noticing that that name is probably the most Orwellian thing you'll come across all week.) This is oil that's mined in northern Alberta, Canada, with the help of some of the world's biggest trucks. The crude is squeezed out of huge chunks of strip-mined dirt, as opposed to drilled from pools of oil underground.

The groups contend this thicker "oil sands" material is more corrosive to pipelines and therefore more dangerous to transport across the United States.

The National Resource Defense Council, in a recent blog post, says oil sands crude also is transported at higher temperatures, putting additional stress on pipelines; and it's thicker and harder to clean up than conventional crude.

Business groups say the material is not more corrosive, citing a report commissioned by the Canadian Energy Pipelines Association.

Those debates, however, obscure the more obvious point: We should be turning our attention -- and should have turned it long ago -- away from oil and toward greener options. Regardless of how they are transported, fossil fuels contribute to climate change when they're burned. And we can't afford to keep relying on them so heavily.

But there seems to be little change of course under way.

We're using newer, riskier technologies to extract the last of the Earth's hardest-to-get fossil fuels. That's true of old pipelines carrying new, more environmentally questionable types of crude from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. It's true of natural gas "fracking," where liquid is injected into the ground to dislodge gas from cracks in the rock. The practice has raised concerns about possible links to earthquakes and potential groundwater contamination. And it's true of drilling in the deep ocean, which, as the 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico showed, we obviously haven't figured out quite yet.

To create an era of sustainable, clean energy, we need to pay more attention to spills like the one in Arkansas and the one in the Gulf.

These events should stick in our noses and on our tongues.

It took a YouTube video to remind me of that. I hope it grabs your attention, too.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of John D. Sutter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT