Oil Spill Reveals Dangers of Deepwater Drilling

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The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico shows that this is a doomed strategy that can only lead to more disasters, so it’s clear that we have to exit this era of reliance on extreme energy, and move rapidly to a post-petroleum energy system as rapidly as possible.  New America Media – BP’s attempts to tame an oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico have failed. With thousands of barrels of oil a day leaking into waters and washing ashore, the region is on the brink of an ecological disaster. New America Media environment editor Ngoc Nguyen interviewed author Michael Klare about the global trend – and risks – of drilling for oil ever further and deeper offshore.

BP has tried fix after fix, but still can’t cap the oil leak which has been spewing as much as 20,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. Is this uncharted territory for BP?

The extraction of oil in the Gulf of Mexico is not a new phenomenon. It took off after World War II. All the wells driven in the Gulf of Mexico, 95 percent of them are in shallow water, about 200 feet deep. If an accident occurs, you could send divers down there and fix it. Many of those inshore coastal wells have been depleted, so the oil companies have had to go into ever deeper waters to find new fields to exploits. In the past five years, the oil companies have pushed oil development further offshore. But the deeper you go, the more demanding the circumstances. The pressures are enormous, temperatures are low. You can’t send divers down there to fix anything. The chemistry of the water is different than in shallow water. Fixes and repairs that work in shallow water don’t work in deep water.

How do you make fixes in deep water?

You have to use robots, you’re one removed from the oil drilling. A human operator can eyeball a problem, but when you rely on robotic instruments, you may miss a particular clue as to what’s going wrong. BP hasn’t been able to come up with a successful conclusion.

What are BP’s next steps to halt the oil gusher?

From the beginning, they undertook the strategy to close it completely, and they have tried efforts to stop it temporarily until the permanent solution came to fruit, but none of the temporary solutions worked. The Obama administration insisted they not try one but two relief wells, which are drilled horizontally alongside the original well and intersect it. They plan to use the relief well to pour cement into the original well and block it permanently at the root.

They have to do all of this by remote control with 100 percent precision. The wells intersect beneath 5,000 feet of water across three to five miles of rock. They are using the most advanced science imaginable. It’s the equivalent of hitting Jupiter with a guided missile.

Why are BP and other oil companies turning to deepwater oil exploration?

Oil development occurred in shallow waters for quite some time, and because those deposits have been exhausted, around the world oil companies have been driven to go into ever deeper water to find new deposits. Oil development is moving from coast to offshore and from tropical to northern zones. Rigs are moving further north into the Arctic.

So, could we see an oil disaster like the one in the Gulf coast in Alaska or the American Arctic?

The next area that the MMS (Minerals Management Service) was planning to open up for oil exploitation was the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas above Alaska. There is at least an equal risk of a blowout like in the Gulf of Mexico. If that occurs, the effects would be even worse. There is no relief capability there as in the Gulf of Mexico, where you could see literally thousands of boats involved in cleaning up the mess. There’s no way you can get to the Beaufort Sea in winter if there’s a spill. It’s impossible; it’s covered with ice. The animals that inhabit the area already are living on the margins of survival. Any environmental damage will be especially severe. 

Even if an oil spill or leak never occurs, processes to find, pump and transport oil still affect the surroundings, right?

There are arguments that even if nothing goes wrong, there will be effects. Industrial-scale activity affect the mating and breeding behavior of endangered whales and interfere with the life cycle of endangered creatures. That’s if everything goes well. 

There are indigenous communities that live on the coast of the Beaufort Sea that live off whale hunting. By international law, they are entitled to hunt a small number of whales, because it’s not only used as part of their food supply, but also part of their religious beliefs.

BP is also responsible for negligence in the case of pipelines in Alaska which leaked oil all over the icy tundra, posing a potential environmental disaster.

Where are the frontiers of deepwater oil exploration?

Another area of intense oil and gas exploitation is Sakhalin Island in Russian territory. It is located off the coast of Eastern Russia. Sakhalin Island, like Alaska, is very vulnerable to any spills or toxic damage, and it’s a pristine wilderness.

There are also huge offshore oil reserves in disputed territory between Vietnam and China, Philippines and China and Malaysia and China, and on occasion there have been naval clashes between forces of these countries. In the East China Sea, China and Japan want to lay claim to a big natural gas field there. 

Brazil is also developing offshore oil. It’s in the middle of Atlantic Ocean, not enclosed like in the Gulf of Mexico, but it too can face the risk of a blowout. If the wind is blowing, it can drive oil on shore right off Rio De Janiero.

What are the lessons we should take away from the oil disaster in the Gulf?

I think the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico shows that this is a doomed strategy that can only lead to more disasters, so it’s clear that we have to exit this era of reliance on extreme energy, and move rapidly to a post-petroleum energy system as rapidly as possible. And invest in new energy rather than prolong the life of old energy.

In the short term, we have to reduce our demand for fossil fuel and that means through conservation efforts and changes in our consumption behavior, by moving to more efficient vehicles, electric vehicles, public transit and bicycles, because automobiles are the largest consumers of oil in this country.

The government needs to stop providing incentives to energy companies to prolong the old energy system, and give them incentives only for a new energy system.

The alternative would look like a combination of Portland, Oregon, where there’s a heavy reliance on public transit and green tech, and like Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, where you have heavy reliance on energy from wind and solar and a very efficient rapid transport system.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. His most recent book is Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy.

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