Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The American Chernobyl: Causes and Consequences of the BP Oil Spill

21 years ago, when Exxon's Valdez tanker spilled 10 million gallons of oil into the Alaskan shore, it was referred to as the worst man-made ecological disaster in history. That was 10,000,000 gallons, which made the ocean look like this. But it's looking right now like BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is going to be exponentially worse before the leak is finally contained.

So yes, there are undoubtedly going to be severe, long-lasting environmental problems that will take decades of recovery for the Gulf Coast. But as you dig deeper into the gritty truth of this massive catastrophe, one can't help but be paralyzed by the loathsome greed that was ultimately behind this particular disaster.

Comprehending the Magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon Catastrophe
The BP oil spill has been leaking at a rate of about 5,000 barrels per day since the rig blew up about a week and a half ago. There's a small wellhead on the pipes that stops oil from leaking anything more than that, although 200,000 gallons of oil per day is still extremely hazardous. But if that wellhead breaks from the erosion of the pipes, then that 5,000 barrel figure could instead mean 50,000 barrels per day. That's an Exxon Valdez-sized spill each week into the Gulf of Mexico, and it could still be months before the spill is contained. In the link above, the phrase "order of magnitude" basically means a multiplier of ten. That means as bad as it is now, if this wellhead breaks, this spill will literally become exponentially worse.

Nobody really knows how much oil is going to spill into the Gulf, because of how deep the drilling had gone. However, even more alarming comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose leaked report fears a worst-case scenario of 2.1 million gallons of oil per day being leaked into the Gulf. Gov. Bob Riley (R-AL) says he is fearing even 150,000 barrels of oil leaked per day, or 6 million gallons. Again, it could be almost a quarter of a year before the oil stops leaking.

Choosing Between Bad and Worse
No matter how you look at the containment efforts currently underway, we can only choose between a bad scenario or a worse scenario. There could be a 4-story, 70-ton dome that would be placed underwater to contain the oil leak, where the oil would be pumped out from above the surface. However, positioning the dome is going to be tricky, seeing as going that deep underwater would mean that dome has to be incredibly resistant to pressure. And by the time it gets there, the damage could already be too great for the dome to have any effect.

Gov. Barbour (R-MS) told me about "dispersing" the oil. But as others have pointed out, dispersing is a term that basically means breaking up the oil slick into particles that will settle on the ocean floor. the oil doesn't actually go away, but instead just settles on the bottom of the ocean. Much of the Gulf Coast's economy revolves around the shrimping industry, and shrimp, along with much of the oceanic food chain, relies on bottom-feeding. There's no telling what kind of disasters, both for species and for the economy, could come from miles of oil on the ocean floor.

There's talk of drilling an alternate well that would funnel the oil out from the source through another pump. However, the source is 22,000 feet deep, and drilling down that far would take 3 to 4 months, even at the quickest possible pace. By that time, there's no telling how much oil will have leaked, and it could very well be a too little-too late endeavor.

No matter how you cut the cake, it's gonna be real hard to swallow for folks in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas. And given the pattern of the winds and Gulf currents, other states along the Eastern seaboard could be put in danger if the oil leaks around the Florida peninsula.

The Unconscionable Greed of Big Oil
No disaster like this has ever occurred in any other part of the world where oil drilling is done, because every country has a certain regulation that keeps something like this from happening. Every country except the United States, anyway.

That regulation is a $500,000 device called an "acoustic shutoff switch," which shuts off the flow of oil at the source in case of an emergency. Oil companies who drill in the United States have Dick Cheney to thank for the removal of that regulation. Dick Cheney, Bush's Vice President, used to be an executive of the Halliburton energy company. And you can bet Halliburton's stock went several points above the competition when the acoustic shutoff switch regulation was removed.

Let's also consider that the estimated cleanup figure for BP in this oil spill is $12.5 billion, which they have grudgingly said they would pay for out of their own pocket. To put that in perspective, BP's annual profit was $25.6 billion in 2009. I'm not the best at math, but let me try to break this down.


So, to set the record straight, BP, whose CEO was quoted as saying, "What the hell did we do to deserve this?" is going to have to forgo just under half of their 2009 profits to clean up the worst man-made ecological disaster in the history of Planet Earth. A disaster that will take decades to clean up and recover. That will ruin fishing and tourism industries in the South, and potentially along the East Coast. That thousands of species and ecosystems will possibly never fully recover from. Just under half of one year's PROFITS. Which means after all the operational and personnel costs have been paid out from their total revenues, they'll still cash an 11-digit check at the end of the year.

As mentioned earlier, the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded was drilling at a depth of 22,000 feet. Their federal permit only allowed them to drill at a maximum depth of 20,000 feet. So not only was BP allowed to bypass a law that had to be followed by every other oil-producing country in the world, but they were breaking oil-drilling laws in the country with the most lackadaisical regulations on the planet. So they could make $25,600,000,000,000 a year.

And by the way, I wouldn't have needed to write this if Dick Cheney didn't feel that $500,000 was too much of a burden for BP to bear before it started drilling offshore.

I don't have a positive or hopeful way to end this post. I could say that no matter how much the spill's cleanup will cost, or no matter the damage already done, the 11 families of those who died on the oil rig will never get back what they lost.

I could choose to mention how the oil spill will kill or taint the food eaten by species like shrimp or red snapper, which humans buy and eat themselves, which means we'll be eating tainted seafood.

I could mention that an Exxon Valdez-sized spill per week for 12-16 weeks will ruin beaches in the South and maybe the East, and will hurt the tourism/hotel/restaurant industries in coastal states. But we've all already heard the gloom and doom from the media, and repeating it won't make anyone feel any better, or reverse the damage that's already been done.

However, I can at least offer a glimmer of hope; maybe this will shake America out of its addiction to fossil fuels, and finally illustrate that a fierce dependence on finite resources can only lead in destruction such as this.

Maybe this will make Americans realize that the mild convenience of our petroleum-driven culture is of little importance when it comes to preserving the planet for our posterity. Maybe this disaster will finally scare our policymakers into incentivizing growth of green energy jobs in solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal, hydroelectric, or even nuclear power.

Maybe American voters will overcome their apathy towards our political system and work to elect leaders who put the environment first, and corporate greed second.

And maybe those tax breaks can grow our economy into a green one that not only provides jobs and powers our homes here in the USA, but spurs other oil-dependent nations to do the same.

After all of this, I can still say I'm hopeful.

Are you?

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