NWA Times, 18 July 2010
The spill: a disaster beyond reckoning
As though gripped by some ancient ritual, Americans today sacrifice pelicans and sea turtles to propitiate the gods of oil and the automobile.
It's the Gulf of Mexico's largest spill. The White House calls it probably the greatest U.S. environmental disaster. Between 35,000 and 60,000 barrels per day, or one Exxon Valdez spill every 4 to 7 days, have flowed into the sea. As of July 1, the total oil spilled and not removed by the ongoing cleanup equaled 24 Exxon Valdez spills. By any standard, the BP oil spill is dreadful.
A Department of Energy report estimates that oil dependence costs the U.S. economy $150 to $250 billion per year, excluding military expenditures. It estimates the total economic costs of oil dependence during 1975 to 2005 at $5 to $13 trillion. Although the fossil fuel industry argues that Americans must increase oil production to meet increasing demand, there are clearly better ways. For example, by increasing fuel efficiencies to 35 miles per gallon, using far more non-automobile transportation, and maintaining compact cities, average Americans could easily reduce their gasoline consumption by half.
Spills are common and can be expected in the future. There have been 39 oil well blowouts in the Gulf during the past 14 years, 18 of them caused by the kind of cement-related problems that probably caused the disaster.
One environmental minefield that's been ignored for decades is the 27,000 (that's right, twenty-seven thousand) abandoned oil and gas wells lurking in the rocks beneath the Gulf. There's particular concern about 3,500 wells classified as "temporarily abandoned." Regulations call for abandoned wells to be permanently plugged, but this rule has been routinely circumvented and most of these wells have lingered without permanent plugs, many of them since the 1950s. It's another case of regulators sleeping at the wheel.
By mid-June, a world record 22,000 barrels of chemical dispersants had been applied to the spill, with partially unknown chemical effects. Dispersants break oil into small droplets and might contribute to the huge plumes of dispersed oil apparently spreading, with unknown effects, in sub-surface waters.
Drilling on the outer continental shelf into an oil reservoir lying beneath one mile of water plus another three miles of rock is like working in outer space: There's no room for error. An engineering study of 600 offshore drilling equipment failures found that 80 percent were due to "human and organizational factors." The study says "The danger has escalated exponentially. We have pushed it to the bloody edge in this very, very unforgiving environment, and we don't have a lot of experience."
It's incomprehensible that oil companies oppose a temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling, a moratorium that would give us a chance to sort out the causes of this disaster and establish reforms. For them it seems that only the money counts. It's as though the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster had just occurred, killing seven astronauts, and NASA were lobbying for an immediate resumption of shuttle flights without first examining the accident's causes. In fact, NASA grounded its shuttle flights for nearly three years while studying causes and solutions. We can thank President Obama for demanding a deep-water drilling moratorium.
Absent major changes, such disasters will increase in number and severity. The easy oil is gone. Our lust for the black gold pushes us into the "extreme oil" of Canadian and Venezuelan tar sands (also dubbed "heavy oil"), ever deeper offshore oil, fractured shale, and precarious political environments. In 1986 only 6 percent of Gulf oil came from wells in water over 1000 feet deep; today, 80 percent comes from such wells. The ultimate disaster awaiting us if we continue our addiction will be global: catastrophic climate change.
An absolutely necessary, but probably not sufficient, solution is to put a reasonable price on carbon. Despite what you might think when tanking up, gasoline is practically free today. Numerous expert studies estimate the real cost of gasoline--including its hidden environmental and health costs--at $8 to $20 per gallon. Economists argue that the most efficient method is a carbon tax, which could then be rebated to all citizens at a few thousand dollars per person per year. A less efficient method is the cap-and-trade system passed by the U.S. House but not yet by the Senate.
We'd better decide on something before we're all, like the pelicans, covered in black goo.