British Petroleum had a fail-safe system for its Deepwater Horizon floating deep-water drilling rig.
You know, the one that blew up and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a tangled spaghetti pile of 22-inch steel pipe one mile long all balled up on the sea floor a mile below the surface, and that is leaking oil at 42,000 gallons per day...so far. (Note: as of Thursday, the Coast Guard has upped the leak rate to over 200,000 gallons of crude a day, meaning that over a month and a half it could release the amount of oil carried by a supertanker--and remember, this leak could get worse.)
The thing is, the fail-safe system, about the size of a McMansion sitting at the wellhead on the ocean floor, um, failed. It didn’t collapse and shut off the flow of oil as intended, and it could take months now to shut the well down--during which time the leak rate is likely to increase to up to 300,000 gallons per day, or over two million gallons a week.
President Obama claimed last month that off-shore drilling technology had become so advanced that oil spills and blowouts were a thing of the past. Of course, as he said this, Australia and Indonesia were still assessing the damage from a similar offshore oil platform, the Montana, in the Timor Sea, which blew out and poured millions of gallons of oil into the ocean off Western Australia for over three months before it could be sealed off.
Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Given that this is true, particularly of complex technological enterprises, the question that needs to be asked is not, what is the probability of a catastrophic failure of an offshore well, but what is the potential damage in the event of even one such catastrophe for the local environment?
In the case of the Deepwater Horizon, the potential damage if this well really blows is staggering. Just 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, it poses a near fatal risk to the region’s wetlands and bayous, with their shrimp and oyster fisheries, not to mention the breeding grounds they provide for endangered birds, fish and other animals.
But the real lesson of the Deepwater Horizon is what it means for expanded drilling in the Arctic waters north of Alaska.
Oil companies, including BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell and others, like Goldman traders looking at a tranch of subprime mortgages, are casting covetous eyes on the Arctic Ocean and the oil and gas that studies suggest lie under the virgin sea floor. Their plan is to drill for these hydrocarbons once the summer sea ice vanishes as a result of rising global temperatures (more about this in a future article).
Obama, as part of his opening of more coastal areas to drilling, is including areas of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, which are already ice free during summer.
But let’s think about this for a moment. Suppose there were a blowout like the one in the Gulf of Mexico at a rig drilling in the Arctic? Suppose it happened towards the end of the short summer, when the ice was about to return to cover the ocean surface? If it was a blowout that couldn’t be plugged, like the Montana blowout in the Timor Sea, or if the fail-safe system at the wellhead failed, as with the Deepwater Horizon, and if the only solution was, as with the Montana well, to drill new wells to ease the pressure on the blown well, how would this be done, once the ice moved in?
Answer? It couldn’t be done. Murphy’s Law again. And so millions of gallons of crude oil would rise up out of the burst wellhead to spread out underneath the ice, whence it would eventually move on to destroy hundreds of miles of fragile coastline, probably killing untold numbers of species that live in the affected waters. The damage from such a completely predictable disaster wouldn’t just be staggering, like the Montana or the Deepwater Horizon blowouts, but incomprehensible!
So why are we even talking about this?
The argument, made ad nauseum by Republicans and Democrats alike, is that the US needs more energy, and that we don’t want to be dependent for our oil on “countries that hate us.”
And yet, there is a much simpler answer than hanging a hydrocarbon Sword of Damocles over our nation’s critical coastal areas. Just copy Europe and impose a 100% tax on gas and oil, to make people turn away from 15 or 20 or 25-mile-per-gallon vehicles and start driving fuel-efficient cars, car-pooling or forgoing cars altogether.
Even better, tax the crap out of cars that don’t get at least 35 or even 40 mpg.
Oh, I know. People will say, “but poor people in rural areas or in the suburbs can’t pay those rates for gas to get to work, and they have to buy used cars that don’t get such high mileage rates.”
I understand the problem, but it is solvable, by establishing refundable tax credits for low-income people who can document long commuting distances, for example.
The main point is that the country doesn’t need to drill in risky settings. It needs only to cut oil consumption.
What’s clear is that drilling in the open ocean is simply disaster after disaster waiting to happen.
That brings us to another lesson from this disaster: the corrupt role of corporations in rigging the political system to prevent any kind of safety or environmental regulation and the corrupt role of our government in catering to corporate interests. Just as the Massey mine explosion in early April revealed how the coal industry has successfully killed efforts to inspect and keep mines safe for workers, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster shows how the oil industry has successfully fought off environmental protection rules. The oil industry lobbiests and their wads of cash handed out to members of Congress kept Congress and the EPA from establishing rules that would have required rigs like this one to have a remote switch system that could have triggered a wellhead shutdown on the ocean floor manually. Some countries, like Norway, require such manual backups on offshore drilling rigs, but the US oil industry (and foreign firms like BP), argued in the US that they shouldn't have to spend the $500,000 that such systems cost. That argument looks kind of stupid now, with BP spending a reported $6 million a day fighting the spill.
About the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.This story was published on April 30, 2010.