As I write this, estimates of the amount of oil which has leaked from the destroyed British Petroleum drilling rig in the Gulf have risen to as much as 2 million gallons. It seems a certainty at this point that this spill, which began when the rig tower exploded on April 20th, will go on to be the worst in U.S. history, dwarfing the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Why?
Because the oil is leaking from the sea floor at a depth of 5000 feet. Available technology for addressing a leak at this depth has not yet been developed. In documents the company submitted in its lease application to drill and pump at this location, it claimed that such a spill was extremely unlikely, and that it was prepared, even so, to address the possibility with state of the art mitigation. Unfortunately, the company knew, as everyone in the industry has always known, that there is no reliable technology to deal efficiently with a catastrophic event such as this one. In other words, though such events may be "unlikely," once they do occur, little can be done to control the spread of crude oil into surrounding ocean.
The company has explained that the only possible mitigation would be to dig a new "side-well" to reduce the pressure from underground, then cap off the leaks. Estimates on the length of time required to do this are in the "90 day" range. What this means in real terms is that the spill will likely progress unimpeded for over three months, spreading as the tide carries it and emanating throughout the Gulf area, covering the fragile tidelands of Louisiana, Alabama and Western Florida, destroying the fishing stocks and eco-systems of the whole region. Though no one in the media has as yet admitted it publicly, this is going to happen and nothing can be done now to prevent it.
What are the implications of this occurrence? What can we learn from the events unfolding?
First, oil companies cannot be trusted to fairly estimate the risks involved in conducting oil mining on our continental shelves. Second, they do not have the resources, or the technical know-how, to deal with a catastrophic event of this magnitude, should it occur. Third, none of the Federal or State agencies has the means to deal with it either.
Humankind tends towards complacency. Even when we know that we cannot really deal with what nature or accident may cause in our immediate environment, we still are capable of "convincing ourselves" that given potential rewards outweigh the "slim chances" of unforeseen consequences. This may not be an entirely stupid approach; optimism and positive thinking are good things when prudently exercised in many trouble-shooting situations, especially when the alternative may seem worse.
But with oil exploration and exploitation, the central driving force is profit. Oil companies have extraordinary political and economic power, and can drive institutional policy much more efficiently than any public interest entity can. It may be that we "want to be convinced" of things that are so profitable, and/or of such apparent immediate benefit as cheap gasoline and heating oil.
But off-shore drilling technology is worse than just a "risky business"; the oil industry has always known that oil spills like this can't be controlled. Now the public too is awakening to this realization. Did the oil industry lie to us about the probable risks, and about their capacity to deal with them? They certainly did.
Did petroleum engineers, including those who work for our government agencies, also lie to the American public about it? They certainly did.
Petroleum corporations have been lobbying Congress and the coastal states to grant new exploration and mining leases for sites all along our coasts. Areas which once had been considered too fragile ecologically, have recently been put back on the table for discussion. The Obama Administration has openly advocated a resumption of the leasing process, to allow more offshore drilling. In California, the environmental movement has stymied the petroleum industry for the last few decades, citing potential damage to the Pacific marine ecosystems. Over-exploitation of the fishing resources all along our coast, as well as industrial, commercial, and public agency pollution, has already put these ecosystems in a state of crisis.
Can we trust the petroleum industry, and our government, to protect us from an industrial accident of the kind that has just occurred in the Gulf? Not bloody likely.
The lesson here is, whatever the potential benefits of offshore drilling off our Western ocean coasts, we know the technology of mitigation is non-existent. If we were to permit extensive offshore drilling to occur here, we would have no protections in the event of a spill. What are the odds of failure, given the record of environmental damage from "accidents" or "acts of god" such as typhoons or tsunamis or earthquakes? What would be an "acceptable level of risk" to hold industry to?
The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 will provide the immediate answer to those questions. Mass death to our marine fish stocks. Total devastation to the shoreline ecosystems. Despoliation of our riverine ecosystems. Destruction of the tourist and sport fishing trades. These potential losses are far greater than any temporary, and limited benefit (who but the industry really benefits?) from allowing this development. The Gulf Oil Spill should spell the demise of future off-shore drilling. Will it? Probably not. People are stupid. They will entertain any kind of risk, if they can be lulled into complacency. Industry lobbyists know this.
The future does not look bright for our coastal ecosystems.