Brace Yourself: This Is the Tip of the Iceberg for Oil-Induced Enviro Catastrophes

After considering laughably titled solutions like the top hat (a containment dome), the junk shot (a pressurized blast of golf balls and shredded tires) and worse, British Petroleum has proven one thing above all else: When the fossil fool hits the fan, it simply has no plan.

By Scott Thill, AlterNet

Posted on May 17, 2010, Printed on May 25, 2010
http://www.alternet.org/story/146879/

After considering laughably titled solutions like the top hat (a containment dome), the junk shot (a pressurized blast of golf balls and shredded tires) and worse, British Petroleum has proven one thing above all else: When the fossil fool hits the fan, it simply has no plan.

The fact that BP was allowed to drill along the shores of the United States in spite of its unwillingness to plan and prepare for accidents is only stunning to those haven’t been paying attention to the feverish pace of deregulation since the rapacious Reagan conservatives took global culture by blitzkrieg. It certainly isn’t surprising to anyone who has been paying even slight attention to BP, which boasts a decorated resume of spills and screw-ups.

According to recent revelations, a blowout preventer that could have halted the Deepwater Horizon clustergush failed a crucial pressure test hours before the April 20 explosion, and was never tested by the government engineer who approved BP’s drilling operation. Those kinds of safety lapses are standard operating procedure, an oil industry whistleblower told the Huffington Post, saying he routinely witnessed 100 such shortcuts on BP rigs and others throughout 18 years of service in the sector. The fallback plan, a relief well, won’t be finished until after the summer, by which there will be little reason left to live in New Orleans. Great. 

But if you’ve been railing for decades against the fossil fuel sector for everything from deliberately removing safeguards that could have prevented what will likely end up being the worst U.S. oil disaster in history to its lethal emissions that could, in the extreme, end up warming planet Earth to the point that human habitation is an impossibility, well, this is all old, sad news. 

Cold Oil Turkey 

“While this is a horrible disaster, it occurs to me that Americans cannot accept the fact that getting oil out of the earth is dirty, difficult, hazardous work, with great risks for society,” said James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency and Geography of Nowhere. “We don’t want to know about it, as long as we can drive comfortably to the strip mall, enjoy NPR and an iced beverage. When something happens to prick our bubble of unreality, we’re indignant.” 

The counter-argument to Kunstler’s hard-eged realism — which is thankfully gaining steam every day the Deepwater Horizon disaster gushes hundreds of thousands, if not a million, gallons of crude into the Gulf — is that further regulation and safety enforcement could put at least a partial stop to the fossil foolishness. Which means legally proving that BP, Halliburton and Transocean deliberately obviated what safety requirements existed so that the United States can conduct criminal proceedings which could then levy heftier damages than $75 million cap on liability under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which itself was hastily enacted by Congress under President George H.W. Bush shortly after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

It also means exacting deeper regulation on the nation’s compromised Minerals Management Service, which the Department of the Interior is considering splitting into two separate agencies. From taking drugs and having sex with energy company reps to being exempted from delivering detailed environmental analyses, the MMS is a controversy-soaked frat house. And its parent agency at Interior is the same hot mess. It’s obvious that, when it comes to America’s oil regime, the lunatics are drilling the asylum into the bedrock. So it’s probably no surprise that neither agency returned several calls for comment. 

But add it up and it’s one hell of a cleanup for a country with an unceasing appetite for hyperconsumption but little stomach for hard work. Which is why the blame-game theory, while it makes for good theater and hopefully better punitive damages, is still a red herring distracting us from the environmental disaster’s prime suspect: All of us.

“BP, Haliburton and Transocean will all be financially punished for this, and they, along with other oil companies, will say, ‘Screw you, America, we’re moving our operations to Angola,'” added Kunstler. “All of this shucking and jiving over blame is a Chinese fire drill concealing the fact that we are all complicit in this disaster, and refuse to even consider changing our underlying behavior.” 

But this is what most junkies do, when the drugs start to wear off and run out: Keep tapping that vein. A new Associated Press/GfK poll on the spill released in mid-May supports that madness. While 42 percent of respondents felt that the Obama administration is properly prosecuting the spill, even more, 50 percent to be exact, are cool with further coastal drilling for oil and gas. In spite of all that has happened, they’d rather drill for what’s left of our domestic oil supply than prepare, plan and proselytize for our inevitable post-oil future. Itinerant laziness is the true culprit in this spill. BP, MMS and other alphabet nightmares are monsters of our own consumptive creation. 

“In the most general terms, I think the answer to drilling problems is better regulation and taxes to fund cleanup efforts,” explained Mother Jones and Washington Monthly journalist Kevin Drum, who like Kunstler is a peak oil theorist. “Because the plain fact is that drilling is going to happen one way or another, as long as we’re addicted to oil. And the answer to that is unrelated to drilling at all.” 

When it comes to killing addiction, the first stage is always acknowledging one. Optimistic estimations of peak oil theory explain that global supply will start dwindling in 2020, a clear-sighted metaphor if there ever was one. Even without factoring in the always reliable underestimation that leads to disasters like Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, that’s only a decade to get our heads and engines together. In other words, a light-speed snapshot of time compared to the insane workload. 

“The administration needs to take this opportunity to explain the multiple hidden costs to our addiction to fossil fuels,” argued Center for American Progress climate analyst Joseph Romm, the author of Straight Up: America’s Fiercest Climate Blogger Takes on the Status Quo Media, Politicians, and Clean Energy Solutions. “As we’re finding out with Goldman Sachs, you just can’t let the industry regulate itself. But ultimately we have to get off the addiction. If the administration doesn’t help us do that, it will be an incomprehensible missed opportunity.” 

“We need a serious carbon tax and serious climate legislation to reduce our reliance,” said Drum. “I care a lot more about that than I do about the specific issues related to oil rig safety.” 

Infinite Step Recovery 

The prospects for such serious campaigns against carbon are practically dead in the water, just like the collateral damage washing up in Louisiana and elsewhere in the Gulf. The current climate legislation drafted by senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman is a capitulation to the fossil fuel industry, offering concessions like increased offshore drilling and a doubtlessly unregulated cap-and-trade derivatives market in exchange for greenhouse gas limits. This mind-numbing arrogance and collusion between the energy sector and rich nations is precisely what led to the failure of last year’s climate summit in Copenhagen, according to ex-World Bank economist Sir Nicholas Stern, who crunched the numbers in 2006 and decided that doing nothing about global warming would end up costing the world around $5 trillion dollars and rising.

The prospects for this year’s retreat in Cancun similarly suck. The Obama administration’s special climate envoy Todd Stern admitted in May that the United States will probably have no climate bill in place by the time it gets to Mexico. Factor in robust public support for further coastal drilling in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and it becomes clear that the political will to change our energy game is weak.  

But the political capital to be reaped by anger over the spill is strong. On May 13, senators Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, Dianne Feinstein, Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Jeff Merkley introduced legislation to ban offshore oil drilling along the West Coast. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew support for a drilling operation off the coast of Santa Barbara. On the other side of the country, Florida representative Corrine Brown has proposed similar legislation, while governor Charlie Crist has suggested a possible constitutional amendment mandating the same. 

Yet the Obama administration is openly supporting not an outright ban on offshore drilling, but Kerry and Leiberman’s weak-kneed concessions. Their bill does include provisions that allow states to ban operations within 75 miles of their coastlines, as well as a sweetener that allows them to siphon off larger revenue from those operations. But they should already have that anyway. And the Deepwater Horizon clustergush occurred over 40 miles offshore; Kerry and Lieberman’s bill would have bought the Gulf coast a few extra days before it was soaked in oil. Plus, fisheries and other natural environments utterly necessary to the economic and civic health of the entire country aren’t strictly on the coastline; some are miles offshore, closer to the rigs than you or I. 

Take a look at what the Department of the Interior calls “President Obama’s comprehensive energy plan for the country,” and it’s clear that we’re in for much more, not less, offshore drilling. The color-coded graphics tell it all: Exploration and production plans to cruise northeastward up from the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico to its Eastern region and up into the South and mid-Atlantic. Same goes for the comparatively oily Alaskan region. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Shell Oil starts  drilling in Alaska’s cold Chuchki and Beaufort seas starting in July. 

“The Arctic region is, in nearly every respect, the exact opposite of the temperate conditions of the Gulf of Mexico,” said WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts. “Technology simply does not exist to clean up a spill in Arctic waters. And, unlike the Gulf with its robust response apparatus close at hand, the Coast Guard lacks the capacity to adequately respond to a spill in the Arctic.” 

While the West Coast is currently off-limits, the Interior reminds, especially given the new legislation from Boxer and company, it’s just a matter of diminishing supply until we start tapping that vein. If not for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we might already have. But with public support and White House support fully behind further offshore drilling, and the paranoid specters of foreign terrorism rearing their fear-inducing heads up in Times Square and Arizona, it’s probably going to be a long time before the United States does anything substantial about the Deepwater Horizon incident, much less greater oil exploration or even climate change.  

But one thing is most likely certain: We won’t be ready as a nation to mandate change until the peak oil gong rings in 2020, or earlier. And by then, it could be too late. 

“Big Oil has obviously funded major disinformation campaigns to mislead the public about the threat of global warming, and the worst-case scenarios for a spill,” Romm said. “But at some point, the painful reality of warming will be so clear that we will be desperate and start to do things differently. But what we need to do first and foremost is pass a climate and clean-energy bill. That is our top priority: Get off the unsafe dirty fuels of the 20th century and get on the safe fuels of the 21st century like wind and solar, which never run out.”

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

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