Friday, May 07, 2010

Republicans: Drill, Baby, Drill

The title for this post might seem a bit unfair. But no one is more associated with "Drill, baby, drill," than Sarah Palin. The Countess of Wasilla, alas, is just as dim as ever. She seems to be upset with the 'foreigners' who created the mess. Here's the Daily Telegraph story in The Vancouver Sun:

Sarah Palin has added to growing anti-British sentiment over the Gulf of Mexico oil rig disaster by saying "foreign" oil companies such as BP were not to be trusted.

The former Alaska governor and potential presidential candidate attacked the British oil company over the recent Deepwater Horizon spill and a previous one in her state in 2006.

She made the comments despite the fact that her husband Todd worked for BP for 18 years as a production supervisor. He left the company last year.

The hypocrite from Wasilla fails to note that many Americans as well as a number of American companies have been involved in the project, including Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton. The idea that American companies are somehow exempt from oil spills is a fantasy. During Hurricane Katrina, it's estimated that at least a million gallons of oil were spilled along the Louisiana coast and out among the oil rigs.

Now BP is certainly not exempt from blame. For some years they have benefited from a green image that was not exactly justified. For example, they did a poor job of maintaining pipelines in Alaska (hey, maybe Todd can tell us about that!). I know enough about the oil business (I've been fortunate to know a handful of people who know a great deal more) to have an idea of the kind of people involved. Like many other fields, there are people who know what they're doing (usually the oil workers, specialists, geologists and most engineers), people who push the envelope in pursuit of the bottom line (usually alpha types or narcissists who bend the rules and don't care much what happens if things go wrong, largely because they have the last group on their side) and finally the bullshitters who are skilled at talking their way out of difficulties (usually amoral lawyers and public relations flacks).

Now I don't know much about Tony Hayward, the chief executive of BP, but here apparently is a taste of how he talks, at least according to Clifford Krauss of The New York Times:
"It’s only one of the battle fronts,” said the chief executive, Tony Hayward, as his leased Sikorsky helicopter hovered 1,000 feet above the spot where the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform exploded...

(snip)

Mr. Hayward said he was convinced that his oil company would eventually get the growing spill under control using a variety of tools, from a flotilla of skimmers to the spraying of chemical dispersants and the drilling of relief wells to plug the leaks on the sea floor. “This is like the Normandy landing,” he said. “We know we are going to win. We just don’t know how quickly.”

Normandy? It's not difficult to figure out which type Mr. Hayward represents, is it?

As of Friday night, May 7, no one really knows how big the oil spill is. The main attempt to seal one of the leaks is going on as I write, but no one knows if this attempt will work or how long it will work or how much oil it will stop from leaking if it does work. What is going on at Deepwater Horizon is deep water technology and that technology is just as much art as it is science. My hunch is something like this has simply been waiting to happen for some time. No doubt mistakes were made but every project like this seems to have a series of mistakes that are made, just not enough to create a major oil spill.

The BBC has a graph showing the different sizes of various oil spills over the last 43 years. It claims the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is small compared to other oil spills—well, so far. The number they give is 7,000-10,000 tonnes of oil. That's equivalent to somewhere between 2 million to 2.86 million gallons of oil. The spill from the Exxon Valdez was over 10,000,000 gallons and that spill is still regarded as one of the smaller oil spills. But much depends on what an oil spill does. The Exxon Valdez damaged one of the richest biological areas in the world and the damage is still visible to this day.

The Vancouver Sun carries a Reuters story that suggests that BP's spill is much larger:
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill may already be bigger than the massive Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 and could have dumped as much as 13 million gallons (49 million litres) of crude into waters off the U.S. coastline, a Florida oceanographer said on Friday.

Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State University, said official estimates that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons/795,000 litres) have poured into the Gulf each day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded two weeks ago were much too conservative.

The real flow rate from the undersea well, based on aerial images of the oil slick and estimates of the thickness of the oil itself, is probably closer to 25,000 barrels (1,050,000 gallons) per day, MacDonald said in an interview.

I'm sure other figures are probably around. If we only take the figures from the BBC and Reuters, the spill is somewhere between 2 million to 13 million gallons. No matter how you cut it, that's a lot of oil. The truth is that 2 million gallons of oil can do considerable damage and the effects should not be minimized, particularly since the oil is still leaking. But if it's 13 million gallons, the damage along the Gulf coast is going to bite for at least a couple of decades.

Now it's been several days since the leak started. What bothers me is that there's good methods and protocols for measuring the size of an oil spill (and it worries me that the oceanographer above is probably aware of those methods). We need hard numbers and I'm curious why it's been so hard to get those numbers. Warnings from BP that the numbers might be larger are not reassuring.

Now what about future offshore drilling? Let's first state the obvious before I proceed: oil is getting costly and will continue to get more costly. There are alternatives, solar and wind being the most obvious choices in addition to major improvements in the efficiency of the technology we already use. But even if the United States took on a Manhattan-sized project to produce 80% of our energy through green technology, it will probably take 15-20 years to accomplish. And it probably cannot be done without burning oil to fuel the transition. We have a problem.

If we drill for oil the way Republicans want to drill, without bothering with green technology, and without bothering to regulate the oil companies more tightly, our economy will go into the ditch rather quickly because we simply cannot overcome the fact that U.S. oil production will continue to fall. We use too much of the stuff. The world uses too much of the stuff. And this says nothing about the effects on the world climate. And nothing about using dirtier and dirtier fossil fuels.

We will have to continue to drill. But hopefully with tight regulation of the oil companies and slowly enough so that we can measure what drilling is doing not just to our environment but to us as well. And also slowly enough to allow green technology to thrive.

Whether we like it or not, oil is subsidized. It costs considerably more than what we pay at the pump. Republicans and oil states in general are all too happy to have the government pick up the tab. The government has been bailing out the oil companies for decades and that's a fact. Here's another fact: alternative energy is now very competitive with oil, but this requires understanding that oil has become far more expensive than anyone on Wall Street, in Washington or in Houston is willing to admit. The age of oil is slowly coming to an end and we need something to replace it. And because we have dawdled for more than thirty years, we have no choice but to continue to burn oil to pay for the transition to green technology.

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