Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reflections on Hands Across the Sand

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Yesterday a few of us here added our numbers to the international Hands Across the Sand event, saying “yes” to cleaner energy and “no” to offshore oil. We joined hands on the waterfront deck at Keweenaw Land Trust’s Marsin Nature Reteat and looked out across the Keweenaw Waterway that connects two parts of Lake Superior.

As we stood with hands joined, we talked of our concerns for the Gulf Coast, of how sad we feel to see what’s happened there, and of how disappointed many of us are with the lack of leadership we’ve observed in response to this catastrophe. We also talked about how each of us has the power to do something – we can write our legislators and tell them how we feel, at least. And some of us expressed hope that we might learn from this for the future.

Our impromptu Hands Across the Sand group joins hands by the Keweenaw Waterway

At the same time we did this, thousands of others in locations around the world joined together for the same reason. Most of these events took place on ocean beaches, but several in addition to our impromptu gathering took place around the Great Lakes.

If you’re not familiar with this region, it might surprise you to know that drilling for oil and gas takes place within the Great Lakes states; Michigan alone has issued permits for around 56,000 oil and gas wells. In the lakes themselves, new offshore oil drilling is banned, making the risk of a Gulf-style well blow-out low. However, Canadian law allows slant drills for oil as well as offshore gas wells in and under Lake Erie (the Gulf spill has prompted Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow to call for changes in this). Also, ships plying the lakes carry and use petroleum products. I had trouble finding good data on spills, but charts compiled in a 2006 report from the International Joint Commission suggest that in the Great Lakes each year, there might be anywhere from 100 to 500 reportable spills, and that on the U.S. side in any case, about 80% of these consist of oil or oil products.

I live near the shore of Lake Superior, where in 2003 a spill occurred in a shipping lane adjacent to our home. About two miles to the west of us, a resident was walking his dog along the beach when he noticed the dog’s legs had become covered in oil. Someone on a passing freighter had let a tank overflow and about 1,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil had spilled over the side into the lake.

That quantity is miniscule compared to what’s gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, but it was still enough for animals (at least the dog) to get oiled and for us to see tarballs up to about dime-size wash up on the beach. It was enough for the Coast Guard and local Office of Emergency Services to conduct an incident clean-up, and for us to be pretty nervous about what might happen to a beach that’s already suffered from past environmental abuses but is now set aside as a nature preserve.

I thought of that time as we stood on the deck overlooking the brilliant fresh blue of the Keweenaw Waterway, and hoped that the disastrous spill in the Gulf might finally motivate all of us in our society to change our ways. Such has been our thirst for oil that we’ve gone after it wherever we can find it, even when it threatens water. Yet water is vital for life; oil is not. Hands Across the Sand calls on us to recognize that and act accordingly.


  1. Just got caught up on all your posts, Kate. Thanks for keeping this in the forefront. I worry about our national amnesia--and worry that people will just go from outraged to resigned, as Al Gore warned about in his film. Thanks for the practical tips that both lessen the need for oil, and leave us feeling a little less helpless.