An ounce of prevention is worth 100 million gallons of cure

From the beginning of this disaster, our response was doomed to be inadequate (see 20-year Coast Guard veteran: “With a spill of this magnitude and complexity, there is no such thing as an effective response”). Guest blogger Shirley Siluk Gregory, who lives on Florida’s Gulf coast, shares her thoughts on lessons learned.

While there’s not much most of us can do to stop BP’s Gulf oil gusher or clean the crude from the water, marshes and coasts, there are actions we can take to help avoid similar disasters like this in the future.

The reason we’re facing this horrific Gulf spill is because deep under water – and then farther deep underground – is where the oil is these days. The easy-to-get, and relatively inexpensive, oil was tapped out long ago. What we’re left with now are the Macondos (5,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, 18,000 feet into the bedrock) and the Tibers (4,130 feet underwater and another 35,056 feet into rock), along with the difficult-to-extract, energy-intensive and pricy oil sands in places like Alberta, Canada. Even wells in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia in particular – no longer produce as freely or easily as they once did.

(An important side note here: Contrary to what many people believe, the Middle East is not the top source of oil for the U.S. Our two largest import sources are Canada, which sent us nearly 900 million barrels of oil in 2009, and Mexico, which provided more than 450 million barrels. Venezuela came in third last year, at 393 million barrels, followed by Saudi Arabia, with nearly 370 million barrels.)

The answer to our energy problem isn’t a simple, “Drill, Baby, Drill,” as we’re seeing now in the Gulf of Mexico. As the oil that’s still available to us gets ever deeper and more remote, the risks grow ever greater.

And there’s another concern on top of that. The problem is that even the deeper, riskier oil finds we’ve made in recent years – however large they’re made out to be in the headlines – aren’t enough to replace the shallow, easy oil that we’ve built our global economy on “¦ shallow, easy oil that’s fast depleting around the globe. (To add some context here, BP thought it could extract between 50 million and 100 million barrels of oil from the Macondo field. Sounds like a game-changer, right? Until you consider that, globally, we consume around 85 million barrels per day.)

Sooner or later, how we operate our economy will have to change. The question is, “How?”

Do we start changing it now, of our own free wills, to build a more sustainable economy that won’t be plagued by future deep-sea rig explosions, blowout preventer failures and massive underwater oil gushers? Or do we keep pushing the technology envelope – at a growing cost, mind you – to drill ever deeper, ever farther out into the oceans while keeping our fingers crossed that tomorrow won’t bring us Deepwater Horizon 2: The Sequel?

To anyone who values our beautiful, white-sand beaches and precious coastal ecosystems, the choice should be obvious.

So how do we get from here to there? There are plenty of things each of us can do:

One, press for more clean-energy development along the Gulf Coast. We’ve got lots of sunshine here – why not do more to build a solar power industry that also creates good jobs and strong local tax bases without fouling the environment for years to come?

Two, demand better oversight for the drilling already occurring in the Gulf. Eleven dead workers, environmental catastrophe and billions in damages shouldn’t be the price we expect to pay for fossil fuels. There’s too much evidence that this disaster was preceded by a lax regulatory environment, ample warnings about carelessness and hurried decision-making focused only on the bottom line.

Three, recognize our own role in this. The U.S. is the world’s most profligate consumer of petroleum, devouring nearly one-fourth of the crude oil produced every year. We can’t continue down this path forever. We need to start drawing down our dependence on fossil fuels.

Finally, start looking to the oceans for wind energy rather than oil. Veteran oil industry expert Matthew Simmons founded the Ocean Energy Institute a few years ago to promote just such a plan. Offshore wind turbines could be used to produce both ammonia for liquid fuel and desalinated water for drinking and other uses, he says, noting that, “This exciting opportunity is where offshore oil and gas was 80 years ago.”

As Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, has said, the signs are clear: “We should not cling to crude down to the last drop – we should leave oil before it leaves us.” We don’t have to quit cold turkey, but the ongoing disaster in the Gulf should be a sign that we need to start working now to make that transition as quickly as possible.

A resident of the Gulf Coast of northwest Florida, Shirley Siluk Gregory holds a degree in geology, is editor of the cleantech site, and writes about climate and energy issues regularly. Her previous CP post was “Oil slick poses a perfect storm for Gulf coast.

11 Responses to An ounce of prevention is worth 100 million gallons of cure

  1. David HS says:

    Odd, isn’t it? A nuclear power station proposal must go through all sorts of regulatory hoops to gain approval, to ensure we (all of us, the world as a whole) don’t suffer another Chernobyl, Three Mile Island or Windscale leak. Yet these oil kids think they should have complete freedom to do anything they like with our planet.

  2. Chris Dudley says:

    This piece is misleading. Saudi Arabia can produce oil at a cost of $7/barrel. That is easy oil by any measure. There are many places on the world with easy oil. We still have a little in stripper wells in Texas, Oklahoma, California and Pennsylvania.

    The trouble is not that there is little of this oil but rather that we have abandoned our low oil price policy and have not controlled our consumption to match the output of easy oil. We didn’t keep up with CAFE standards so now, on the margins, without contributing all that much to supply, these desperate efforts are profitable.

    However, the expensive marginal barrel is profoundly economically harmful regardless of how little it contributes to supply and it must be driven out of the market. We need to assure that Saudi Arabia is forced to keep half or so of its production capacity idle if it wants to manipulate prices. At that point, they miss out on profits and OPEC is broken. So, we need to cut about 3 million barrels a day of US consumption right away to force the price of oil down to the point where only easy oil is profitable, not deep water drilling or tar sands. This maximizes economic benefit from oil.

    That is still a LOT of easy oil, just not quite as much as we are currently consuming and that is because we forgot to keep up with innovation in fuel efficiency and no other reason.

    [JR: I don’t agree with you on this.]

  3. Lore says:

    Finding easy oil, or making oil cheap is not a solution. We just went through three decades of that after the oil shock of the 70s. Such attempts only reinforce a corrupt attitude towards limited resources, resulting in pushing the inevitable just a little further down the road with greater consequences.

    Changing now of our own free will and accepting less for more is a bigger question and one which I think predictably humans are wired to ignore. The scale of what we must do and the expediency at which we must do it is so colossal at this point that the average person’s mind just ignores the reality and waits, like a deer caught in the headlights, for all of these small shocks to accumulate until the human race is caught flat footed in some cataclysmic event. Unfortunately at which time there will be no play-over as in some weird video game. Like death, better not to think about it at all or find an excuse not to.

  4. Chris Dudley says:

    Lore (#3),

    Not at all. Sticking with easy oil is our best solution. It puts us on a path of reduced consumption. This is very, very, very important. In just about a decade, solar power is going to be so cheap that cooking oil out of shale is going to look very attractive if we keep up these high oil prices. Right now, what is called the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for producing oil out of shale is very low. That makes oil shale hardly an energy source at all. But, a solar company called Nanosolar claims an energy payback time of well under a year for their solar cells. That means a very high EROEI for solar power, probably as high or higher than the very early days of oil with gushers in Pennsylvania and Texas. Combining solar power with shale oil is the same as a gusher in energy economy terms. It will soon be similar in regular economy terms as well. So, we must reduce our demand and taste for oil very soon or we stand to open the largest carbon reservoir there is aside from limestone. Sticking with easy oil provides that path. We have to cut oil consumption by a few per cent a year once we make an initial cut of 3 million barrels a day. That shifts us off of oil at a fairly rapid, but economically beneficial (low oil price) pace.

    If we had European fuel economy standards right now, we’d already be there in terms of reduced oil consumption. But, we forgot. Now we have a very big mass because we forgot that we wanted cheap oil and not oil at any price. It is time to get back to our old policy.

    Joe in #2,

    There is at least as much easy oil left as we’ve already burned. Do we have a half-full-half-empty disagreement here?

  5. Raul says:

    It is true that people may be thinking that there are other
    ways. If doing without the combustion engine means using
    a different type engine, as the first thought, then there
    are other ways to do those things that many people find
    important in their own lives.
    So there is hope that people will see that there is some
    progress to ways that are easier to keep up with.

  6. Leif says:

    “BP thought it could extract between 50 million and 100 million barrels of oil from the Macondo field.”

    BP is fronting $20 Billion so far. (It will surely cost more.) But even with those numbers, the DOLLAR cost of having that oil on the Gulf is ~200 to 400 dollars per barrel! That is real money that would have been lining the pockets of the already rich or helping to mitigate Climatic Disruption.

    Instead we get dead people, disrupted lives, ecosystems torn asunder, sea life, marsh life, wild life, slowly suffocated.

    Who do you LOVE?

  7. Nick Downie says:

    I agree with every word of Shirley’s post, but I would go further and demand a worldwide ban on ultra-deep-water drilling. I read a comment by an industry insider (sorry, forget where) saying that the safety measures have not kept up with the ability to drill these very deep wells, thereby massively increasing the risk of disaster. Furthermore, less than 2% of known oil reserves reside in these deep-water fields. Are the risks of catastrophe worth the extraction of this relatively trivial amount? Personally, I think not.

    It would have to be a worldwide ban, else the companies will simply transfer their activities to other nation’s shores. At the moment, most of these fields are found in what is called “The Golden Triangle” – “The Triangle of Black Death” might be more apt – which extends from the Gulf to Brazil to West Africa. The Falklands are not included in this ‘triangle’, but drilling has started there too, in areas that were previously unreachable – i.e. they’re at the very limit of current technology.

    However, leaving all that aside, yesterday I found an appalling exposition of what may actually be going on beneath the seabed at BP’s well. It appears to have been written by someone with a great deal of technical knowledge. It’s a long and very detailed explanation, but easily understood by a layman, and riveting reading so long as you aren’t prone to having nightmares. This information may already have been discussed in the US media (I live in Spain, so it’s hard to keep up) but the conclusion is that this well will likely prove unstoppable and that it will result in the entire field emptying itself into the Gulf. This could be as much as 2.5 BILLION barrels. If this is news to anyone, I strongly recommend spending ten minutes getting your head round this:

  8. Nick Downie says:

    P.S: Near the end of the exposition linked above, the author says:

    “We are seeing the puny forces of man vs the awesome forces of nature.
    We are going to need some luck and a lot of effort to win…
    and if nature decides we ought to lose, we will….”

    Seems to me that remark applies to the entire Climate Change debate.

  9. Shirley says:

    Chris, I believe Matt Simmons would beg to differ with you. While gasoline prices in Saudi Arabia and some other oil-producing nations are subsidized and ridiculously cheap by world market standards, the cost of PRODUCING this oil is not as cheap as it used to be. Back in 2005, when Simmons’ “Twilight in the Desert” first came out, he already pointed out that bringing online the Khurais project in Saudi Arabia was expected to cost some $11 billion to produce 1.2 million barrels a day … and for how long that would produce no one knows.

  10. Chris Dudley says:

    Shirley (#9),

    If that produces for ten year then they’ve invested $2.50/barrel. (At 30% recovery they should run 20 years.) They still have to pay people to run the wells, but not all that much.

    You should be very careful of what people mean when they say gasoline is subsidized. Often they mean that the country is foregoing what it could make on the world market, not that the gasoline is being sold at below the cost of production. There is a LOT of easy oil left and we don’t have to cut consumption all that much to get back on a diet of easy oil only. We could all be paying the “subsidized” rate for gasoline and no one would go broke (except in the Gulf) though certain people would no longer be getting richer.

  11. Nick Downie says:

    I have to apologise to CP readers. The link in #7 above is either a hoax, or the man believes what he says but is seriously misguided. My excuse, such as it is, is that it’s on a respected site – The Oil Drum – and that it even fooled, sort of, a journalist who spent four years researching and writing a book on the oil industry. That said, I still feel a complete idiot, and once again I apologise.

    Reluctant as I now am to add yet another link, there is a fascinating discussion on Oil Drum here between some genuine oilmen about how things are done on a day-to-day level. It isn’t reassuring but it reveals a great deal about how and why things went so disastrously wrong at BP’s well. Although their attitudes are understandable at a human level, to me it merely confirmed my view that ultra-deep drilling should be permanently banned forthwith. Only attempt to read the thread if you have time to spare – it’s very long.