Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Deepwater Event Horizon

I was sitting in a job safety training meeting this morning. The trainers challenged us all to examine our attitudes toward jobsite safety, especially attacking the assumption which they believe to be prevalent among many employees that “what really matters to our company is the bottom line. If safety interferes with the bottom line, then safety has to take a back seat.” The trainers emphatically stated that at their jobsite, safety is always first.

This got me thinking about the recent deepwater oil well blowout and sinking of the British Petroleum mobile rig Deepwater Horizon. I haven't been able to follow the story as closely as I should, but I do know a few things, namely, that the sinking of the rig killed eleven people onboard; that according to reliable sources, the rig was the deepest in the world; and that for years its owner, BP, had fought the sort of safety regulations that would have prevented a disaster of the magnitude we now see. The ruptured well is leaking between 5000 and 25,000 barrels of oil per day at present (depending on whose estimate you believe), and has leaked enough oil to form a slick bigger than Rhode Island. BP's present efforts at inserting a concrete cap on the sea floor will only deal with one source of leakage; by now there are several. And there is a chance that the cap will not work as intended. Moreover, it may be months before BP can stop the leak fully. Lastly, this massive oil leak comes during both the spawning season for a lot of sea wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, and the beginning of the tropical storm season in the Atlantic.

Although I am an engineer, I am by no means an expert on the oil industry. But I am a student of human nature. I remember the strategy of the McCain-Palin campaign in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, and how the Republicans and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News blamed high energy prices on “excessive” Democratic/leftist concerns over the environment. The Republican message was simple: “Drill here, drill now, pay less,” and they wanted to open up all of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the United States and its coastal waters to oil drilling. The Gulf Coast states were all Republican-leaning “red states” in the 2008 election, with the exception of Florida.

Now they are about to be baptized in oil.

I wonder how many Republican-leaning good-ole-boy commercial fishermen will have their businesses wiped out this year by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I wonder how many coastal residents will be sickened by toxic chemicals washing up onto their beaches. I wonder how much of an economic disaster the Gulf Coast will have to face from the spill. More importantly, I wonder how many of these people will be both able and willing to connect the dots between their lifestyles and electoral choices and the oil now killing their ocean. “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” Or as J.R.R. Tolkein once wrote, “The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

That is generally true, I suppose – unless someone interferes with the lesson of the burned hand by drugging the burn sufferer. And Fox News is a willing pusher of drugs these days. Their coverage of the disaster has painted BP in a very positive, almost heroic light, while greatly exaggerating the effectiveness of the work done by BP to date to stop the oil leaks. They have also tried blame shifting, questioning whether the Obama administration's response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster was effective enough. They have downplayed reports of dead animals washing up on Gulf Coast shores, saying, “...even though the dead turtles and jellyfish washing ashore along the Gulf of Mexico are clean, and scientists have yet to determine what killed them, many are just sure the flow of crude unleashed by the explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon is the culprit.” And in an unbelievable display of bad timing, they have even revived the “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” mantra, as stated in an opinion piece written by Newt Gingrich yesterday. I have compared Fox to a collection of drug pushers, but to publish the kind of distortions they do they must all be taking mind-altering drugs. Then again, money is a drug, and some people will do anything to get some of it.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is an example of the risks that come with trying to exploit ultra-deepwater oil reserves. Many respectable analysts do not believe that deepwater oil will save the world from a post-Peak state of affairs. But deepwater oil can make one really huge mess. How much more can the earth's oceans take before all the life in them collapses?


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