TEDxOilSpill: XPRIZE Announces $10 Million Clean-Up Challenge

A much-anticipated TEDxOilSpill gathering kicked off  today in Washington, the 70th day of the Gulf oil crisis, with repeated urgings by speakers for stepped-up nationwide efforts to both cap and clean up the spill.

Just before the gathering broke for lunch, Francis Beland, VP of Prize Development for the X PRIZE Foundation, announced the organization will be launching a special "challenge contest" that  will  divvy up some $10 million in prize money among those who come up with the best ideas for cleaning up the Gulf Coast's waters and shoreline. "This will be a special prize, not exactly like the others we give," Beland said.  He urged entrepreneurs to email him directly with their cleanup ideas and their input about how to further structure the contest. Beland says he hopes to officially launch the contest within the next two weeks and asked people to email him at francis@xprize.org.

The announcement, for which no further details were immediately available, is the latest effort to spur greater levels of civic action around the spill. "Most people don't understand the issues that led to this happening," conference organizer Nate Mook, 28, told CNN over the weekend. "The spill has brought to the forefront a lot of things that have been on the sidelines for a long time" such as "the problems with our oceans, how important the marine ecosystem is, where we are getting our energy and what we are putting at risk." Mook and co-organizer Dave Troy, 38, both DC tech entrepreneurs, said they began organizing the event four weeks ago to help people "fill the information void" about the complexity of the disaster.

The event, modeled after the annual TED conferences in California but not organized by TED, was held in a downtown theater and livestreamed to an estimated 1 million people watching from their homes or from some 129 Meetup locations across the United States, Asia, Europe and Australia.  A team of photographers kicked off the day by sharing images they had collected from the  Gulf region for the conference. Their project, called  TEDxOilSpill Expedition, included dozens of aerial photographs of the spill as well as images of local residents meeting to vent their anger against BP and the Obama administration. The photographers, who urged more people to gather digital images of the spill and its impact, have put their collection on Flickr; their photographs may be downloaded for free but must give credit to the source.

Team leader James Duncan Davidson, TED's conference photographer, described his difficulties getting access to the worst areas affected by the spill. "Air space over the spill is controlled by BP," he said. "We could find only one pilot willing to take me out over the Gulf" -- and when he got there, Davidson added, the air "smelled like you've dumped oil, gas, propane and Windex all over your garage." Team members later told conferees to tell people who want to help to "go make art, go make media, raise money."

In other highlights:

* Philippe Cousteau, the grandson of the late ocean environmentalist Jacques Cousteau, said the spill's impact is being "enormously under-reported." He said "the cost to wildlife of the spill is very bad. We're only just beginning to get a full picture. ... The estimate now is that for every bird found, there are 10 birds not found." Cousteau, the founder and CEO of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit, added that governments around the world have "under-invested in oceans for decades. ...We don't really understand the ecosystems in the best of times, much less in times of crisis."

* Casey DeMoss Roberts, of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network (HealthyGulf.org), told conferees that when she was 17, she lost her father, an oil rig worker, to a typhoon. She said the country is becoming more desperate in its search for oil. "He should never have been out there in the first place," she said. "How can we stop making human sacrifices for a tank of gas?" Roberts said the spill also is causing coastal wetlands to die at an alarming rate. "In the Gulf, we lose of football field of wetlands every 45 minutes" due to the spill, she said, as containment efforts continue to fail. Long-held cultural traditions in the region also are being affected, she said. The region's annual  Shrimp & Petroleum Festival, the oldest festival in Louisiana, is still scheduled for September 2-6, but "I wonder what it will look like this year," she said. Roberts ended her remarks by blaming the federal government, not BP, for doing too little to find alternative energy sources so as to break the nation's dependence on oil. "We can't expect companies that make catastrophic mistakes to stop making them," Roberts said, her voice quavering. "It's time to force our government to think outside the barrel."

* Latosha Brown, a native of Mobile, AL and a community organizer there, expressed worry about BP's  use of toxic solvents to break up and disperse the oil in the Gulf. "I have yet to meet a fisherman who is supportive of oil dispersants," said Brown. She fears the fishing industry will be "all but wiped out" if the spill is not contained soon, and urged policymakers in the audience to help local residents diversify their economy, retrain workers and encourage entrepreneurs.

* Susan Shaw, a marine toxicologist and the founder/director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute, told conferees that she visited the Gulf in May and entered the waters near the spill. Shaw, who is launching an independent, region-wise investigation of the toxic impacts of oil and dispersants on marine life and human health, said she tested herself afterwards for toxins and discovered 113 different compounds and flame retardants in her own blood. Shaw said the dispersants being used by BP to break up the oil on surface waters likely will create serious health problems in humans and marine life; the combination of oil and the dispersant Corexit, she said, creates an even more toxic cocktail.

* Lisa Barry of GrassrootsMapping.org demonstrated the New Orleans-based nonprofit's crowdsourcing project to help citizens produce and collate their own aerial photographs of the spill and its ongoing impact. For more on this project, see Justmeans' June 5 report on the initiative. "We're collecting images of places that no one ever bothers to photograph, and doing so over time to see the impact," Barry said. "It will help hold authorities responsible and create a public record so people won't forget."

The conference continues through today. Watch this space for updates.

What do you think? Are you watching the live-stream? Let us hear your takeaways from the day.

(Photo, above, from TEDxOilSpill Expedition team collection)