Summer Of Tarballs


Anyone who visited Texas’ beaches in the 1970s is familiar with the tarball. Ranging in size from a penny to a basketball, these dough-like masses of raw petroleum stained our skin and swimsuits with an unfortunate brown smear. They also made handy projectiles to throw at crabs, seagulls and friends. Tarballs seemed like just another hazard of playing in the waves, like jellyfish—the price paid for living in an oil-producing state.

Tarballs—and the oil spills that released them—were common before serious environmental regulations were adopted. One reason Texas got tough was a massive spill in 1979. A Mexican deepwater rig spilled 140 million gallons in an accident eerily similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster now unfolding off the coast of Louisiana. The floating Pemex rig had a blowout almost two miles beneath the surface. Crude flowed for nine months. The slick drifted 600 miles before washing up on South Padre Island.

Since then, a lot of effort has gone into safer drilling, and the beaches are cleaner for it. Rigs off the Texas coast are in easier-to-drill shallow water, and the General Land Office monitors them closely. But while Texas doesn’t have risky deepwater rigs, that doesn’t mean our coast is not in danger. The Pemex disaster, and now the Deepwater Horizon blowout, prove otherwise.

This summer billions and billions of tarballs will wash up in Texas. While the damage will pale next to what is happening to other Gulf states, the tarballs will kill, choke and disfigure many sea turtles, dolphins and birds. Our fisheries will suffer.

Coincidentally, the spill struck within weeks of the Obama administration’s loosening restrictions on offshore drilling. The attack of the toxic blob should remind us of the risks of hubris and our lack of preparation for when plans go horribly wrong.

If experts are to be believed, Texas has an excellent emergency plan to respond to a major spill. But it remains untested, and we’d like to make sure it stays that way. Rather than allow more drilling, as the Obama administration has proposed, we wish other states would follow Texas in planning to convert oilrigs to offshore wind platforms and drill less. The best way to encourage that is to reduce the demand for oil.

Texas is a leader in renewable energy, and we hope that this latest disaster will inspire lawmakers to pass legislation to give the renewable energy industry at least the same legal advantages the oil industry currently enjoys. Beachgoers will not be the only ones who will be grateful.