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Year in Review: Gulf Coast Oil Spill Tops List of Environmental Concerns

December 29, 2010

Deepwater_pelican_profile Climate change, deforestation, species loss
-- all took a back seat, for a few months at least, to the biggest environmental story of the year, the disastrous explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20 and subsequent discharge of oil. Before it was capped in mid-July, the deep-sea gusher pumped more than two hundred million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico -- the worst oil spill in U.S. history -- wreaking havoc on the region's fishing and tourism industries and threatening long-term damage to the region's fragile ecosystems.

Not that the news on the environmental front was all that bright before the Deepwater blowout. In February, a report from the Pew Environment Group suggested that rapid melting of Arctic snow and sea ice could cost the world a minimum of $2.4 trillion by 2050. The urgency of the global warming problem was underscored later in the month when the Boston-based Barr Foundation, New England's largest private foundation, pledged $50 million over five years to help make the metro Boston region a national leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And in July, the New York City-based Ford Foundation made an even larger climate change commitment, pledging $85 million over five years to help rural and indigenous people play a more active role in the stewardship of the natural resources around them and ensure that future global climate change initiatives addressed their needs.

Still, the BP spill dominated headlines for the better part of the year -- which made the lackluster charitable response that followed in its aftermath all the more surprising. Community foundations in the region were among the first to respond, with the Greater New Orleans Foundation establishing a Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund in early May to support those in the fishing and tourism industries affected by the disaster, while the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice made an early grant to support a Florida marine laboratory monitoring the Gulf's marine life. But six weeks after the explosion, only $4 million had been donated to relief and recovery efforts (compared with the more than $580 million contributed within eight days of Hurricane Katrina's landfall).

A number of corporations eventually did step up with significant donations of cash and/or in-kind goods. They included Pepsi, which contributed $1.3 million through its Pepsi Refresh Project to nonprofits proving support and assistance to people in the Gulf Coast region; Chevron, which gave $750,000 to the National Audubon Society; and BP, which gave $25 million to three research institutions working in the Gulf. In addition, the nonprofit X Prize Foundation launched a $1.4 million competition, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, to encourage the development of solutions to cleaning up oil spills.

If the BP spill overshadowed most other environmental efforts in 2010, it also served, as William Meadows, president of the Wilderness Society, said in June after his organization received a three-year grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, as "a tragic reminder of why the transition to renewable energy is so essential."

Meadows was hardly alone in holding that view. In October, David and Patricia Atkinson pledged $80 million to Cornell University to endow the Center for a Sustainable Future they had created on campus in 2007. "The environment, energy, and economic development are heavily interrelated; problems of sustainability can only be addressed with a multidisciplinary approach," said Atkinson, a retired general partner of Philadelphia-based Miller, Anderson, & Sherrerd LLP. "As the pressures of rapid population growth take hold, to avoid a crisis it's important to address issues of sustainability preemptively."

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