Thursday, 6 May 2010

Oil on Water

An estimated 39 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20th. If my math is correct, and if that were gasoline that I could pump into my car's 16-gallon tank which I refill on average once a week, I could run my car for 46,875 years. Now, I admit I don't know how much gasoline you get from a gallon of oil. Probably depends on the type of gasoline and the process by which it's made, so my calculation is a big if. But even assuming that you can get 1/2 a gallon of gasoline from 1 gallon of oil would mean I could run my car for 23,437.5 years (or 23,437.5 of my cars for a week). I'm hoping cars powered by gasoline will be long extinct before that.

I sat next to a sweet old man on the plane coming back to England. He's an electrical engineer by day, stamp collector by nights, weekends and holidays. He started talking about engineering disasters like the one in the gulf and directed my attention to Piper Alpha. Piper Alpha was an explosion on an oil production platform in the north sea in 1988. 167 men died in that explosion. (More on that: His point of telling me this was that is never one thing that leads to an explosion of that magnitude, but rather a series of small things. He was curious to find out what the small things were that lead to the recent explosion.

I'm surprised at the methods for "fixing" an oil spill. Burn it. (What will the ppm of co2 be this year? will it have a noticeable effect?) Box it. (Golf balls?) Disperse it. Chemicals? One interview I heard (I think the lady was from NOAA) said that the chemical dispersant didn't clean the oil, it simply broke it up and made it sink from the surface into the water column. As little globules in the water column it can be eaten by fish who mistake it for food and it also has a better opportunity of being swept up in an ocean current and carried to distant places. On top sure is ugly, but at least you can see it, track it, tell what's happening.

A BBC report on the spill had a reporter dive under the spill with Philippe Cousteau, son of the famous Jacques, in hazmat suits and with cameras to see what was happening in the areas where chemical dispersant had been used. They were horrified. They described the swirling globs of oil as storm clouds brewing. Philipee called it a nightmare. (video:

Horrible ineed. Horrible enough to bring a Louisianna politician to tears. Horrible enough to cause President Obama to put a moratorium on off-shore drilling. Horrible enough for him to call out the oil companies and for the head of the Minerals Management Service, the department that oversees oil extraction in the US, to resign. It's an opportunity for the relationship between oil and politics to be exposed for what it is; to potentially change the relationship; to potentially get a few earth-loving people on board with the environmental movement, plug in cars, alternative energy. Maybe it's enough to get Sarah Palin and the tea partiers that fund her to stop chanting "drill, baby, drill".

I'm curious how the sea life has been and will be affected. No one seems to know. One report I heard had someone saying that it's not a big deal, environmentally speaking. I suppose for BP, they're thinking it's a big deal because they're loosing a precious amount of oil in a time when they're having to reach father and deeper for oil than they have before. This can't be good for their image. They've gone from British Petrol to BP to Beyond Petroleum to Beyond Polluting? Beyond saving? Bet the new guy wishes he'd kept up the renewable end of the business so at least he could claim that they're really dedicated to finding alternatives to oil so they won't risk disasters like that in the future. Another interview I watched showed some high up in BP walking along an oil stained/slimed beach. He seemed rather horrified by what he saw, and not just because he was standing over oil that was draining his pockets rather than filling them. May this be a turning point.

Everyone's been pointing the finger at BP. I think rightly so. But I'd like BP to point the finger back at us a bit, tell us that this oil business is a dirty business and we're up to our necks in it. If we don't like what we're seeing, then we need to change our ways. Supply and demand, right? BP is just supplying it because they know we want it. (I admit it's more complicated than that, but we fund wars over oil so why wouldn't they cash in on it?)

I landed in London on election day. It took a few weeks after the election for things to get sorted, for a new coalition government to be formed after the election didn't yeild enough votes for any party to win hands down. Politics seems to be all about bargaining. Giving up things to get what you want. Obama did it with health care; cashed in his political bargaining chips to get the bill passed and traded off-shore drilling in the mid-Atlantic for it. I wish politicians would start seeing environmental safety and health as being related to human safety and health as something that is simply not up for negotiation.

I can appreciate the engineering challenge that is spotting this gusher. I can appreciate that BP is working on it. I hope the fix isn't simply a band-aid. I hope there's also deep reflection. Hurray to Obama for stepping up and accepting responsibility. Let's hope it's not just lip service.

Top Kill:
Political ripples:
"Clean Up":
Moving video: Obama talks and spill images

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