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 Greenbang.com, and writes about climate and energy issues regularly. Her previous CP post was “Oil slick poses a perfect storm for Gulf coast.