Sunday, May 30, 2010

One Important Lesson to Learn from the Gulf Oil Spill

 May 24th, the Oil Slick has clearly hit ground in the
Mississippi River Delta, and an arm reaches towards the Gulf Stream

There are many lessons to learn from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, some of them technical, some of them philosophical, but there is one lesson which I have not heard mentioned nearly enough.  It is voiced occasionally, and sometimes in high profile media like the New Yorker, where it was recently mentioned in their "Talk of the Town" section.  That lesson, which is perhaps the most important, is simply stated: oil ain't what it used to be.

In a recent post I talked about peak oil and what it means for the future of our society.  In a nutshell, the oil that we can get out of the earth is finite, and at some point production will take a very sharp downward curve.  What I did not mention, however, is that on the downside the oil is more expensive to find, harder to get to, much harder to get without significant ecological impact, more difficult (and energy intensive) to process and refine, and more difficult to transport.  So as reserves are diminished, supply will decline even faster unless discoveries are ramped up even more, hastening the end of oil (assuming demand remains constant).

The first oil wells were drilled on dry land, but off shore drilling has a long history as well.  First in lakes and shortly after in very shallow coastal waters, rigs were built to drill oil below bodies of water.  However, up until about 1947 the deepest water that we could drill under was about 20 feet.  But necessity drove us further and further out to sea, and into deeper and deeper waters.

Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig on Fire, Shortly Before Sinking

As long as the history of drilling for oil is the history of accidents in drilling oil.  Beginning on land, explosions and fires claimed many lives in early years.  By now most of the safety issues have been worked out for drilling on land, but most of the operations in this country today are offshore, and every time we push the limits of what our technology is capable of we increase the risk of a devastating spill.  In fact, all of the largest oil spills in the history of drilling have occurred since 1969, when an oil rig drilling under 188 feet of water had a blow out resulting in 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel.

The current disaster happened on a rig drilling at a depth of 5000 ft below the ocean surface, which is just under 1 mile.  Drilling at that depth is difficult and complicated by many factors such as high pressure.  Although we theoretically have the technology to drill safely at that depth, and deeper, the recent disaster highlights the fact that the margin for error is so slim as to make it effectively unsafe.

In short, we have drilled and burned much of the oil that is easy to get, near the surface, and can be drilled with relative safety.  As long as we continue to burn oil for fuel, another spill is not only possible, it is probable.  I don't harbor any illusion that we could flip a switch and all suddenly be driving electric cars, or using bio-diesel instead of gasoline, but I do think that it is incumbent upon each of us to think long and hard about how we use oil and how much we want to be using oil.  Change is not easy, nor immediate, but in this case it is important that we affect it as soon as possible.


  1. A very well-written explanation of a complicated issue. It is truly frightening, when you understand the risk and limitations of our current oil dependency. There is this level of inertia that humankind seems to exhibit when it comes to changing our behavior, from our cars to our waste habits or energy usage. We keep acting as if we can just keep going like this forever, consuming and consuming the earth. The effects of our current actions could be catastrophic if we, as a species, don't wake from this stupor. I can only hope more people are taking action to educate themselves and others and work towards fixing our errant ways. Thank you for being one more voice pointing us in the right direction.

  2. Well we are in a bind with 6.5 billion people out there wanting to consume a cornucopia of consumer needs to quench our ego's. We really should have paid more attention to tree huggers and the likes of Paul Ehrlich back in the 60's when we had 3.5 billion and overpopulation issues were being discussed without ridicule. Sorry, now it is too late to stop the plundering. Mike

  3. Yes, if we had listened more closely to the tree huggers in the 60s we'd be better of now, but we can't throw in the towel, although it certainly seems that many activists from the 60s have done just that. It is going to take creativity, innovation and foresight to get on the right path, and it may take the minds of people who are not even born yet. But the collective consciousness of humankind is an immensely powerful thing, if we focus our energies on solving these problems, we can. It is overwhelming to know that you cannot control the actions of others, and you cannot know for certain what the future holds for humankind, and to understand how bad things are, and how much worse they could be...But giving up means accepting the failure of our world...defeatism is simply not an option.

  4. We can't flip a switch and suddenly all be driving electric cars powered by solar and wind, but how soon we can achieve that goal depends entirely on our collective will. The urgency is illustrated by this catastrophe, and we shouldn't kid ourselves that there is such a thing as fail-safe nuclear energy either.