Tough oil…

OilSpill


“It didn’t take long, with modern technology, for the relatively shallow waters of our continental shelves in places like Southern California and the Gulf of Mexico to become studded with oil platforms, many easily visible from shore in places like Long Beach, California, and Grand Isle, Louisiana. As those shallow offshore reservoirs began to be depleted and technology developed, the industry pushed its rigs farther out, beyond the shelves, into the dark, icy ‘deep water’ that lies beyond the horizon, where the seafloor sits more than a mile beneath the surface, and the oil deposits themselves lie as many as six or more miles beneath that.

It’s not hard to see how wells drilled at such depths and such distances from shore, along with the more extensive infrastructure needed to support them (the rigs, pipelines, the transport and supply vessels, and, yes, the manpower), add up to a recipe for ‘minor’ mishaps at the very least and, at the worst, for disasters on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon.

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Those ‘minor’ mishaps, which the industry considers normal in the day-to-day operation of deep water rigs–leaks and ‘small’ spills at well sites; seepage from the surrounding seafloor; leaks and spills that occur in transporting the oil to shore; discharges of toxic ballast water from ships’ tanks that had been filled with crude–when coupled with everyday chemical runoff from land sources, add up to 15 million gallons of oil entering North America’s oceans each year, just as the result of ‘business as usual’. That’s enough to fill 4500 residential swimming pools…

Consider the fact that there are nearly six hundred active offshore drilling rigs operating in the world today and that adds up to a lot of ‘routine’ contamination. While most of the Gulf of Mexico’s oil is shuttled to the shore through underwater pipelines, much of the world’s oil must cross the ocean in huge–and sometimes leaky–tankers…

Experts have pointed out that while a Valdez-type surface spill has little effect on creatures that live in the deep, a subsurface spill like the Deepwater Horizon, and the plumes that it generates, endanger the entire oceanic food web, from tiny shrimp larvae and plankton to massive sharks, marlin, and the precious and endangered bluefin tuna…

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Making matters even worse with a spill like this are the chemical dispersants often sprayed on the surface–and in this spill released at the wellhead, too–to break up the oil and make it easier for microbes to digest it. This was one of the first things BP did in response to the spill.

These dispersants are toxic themselves, being composed of petroleum distillates and propylene glycol, the chemical that is the main ingredient in automobile antifreeze and in the deicing solution used on aircraft. How dangerous is propylene glycol? Government health agencies warn factory workers to avoid skin contact with it for fear of its causing brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities.

These dispersants change the chemistry and physics of the oil by breaking it up into countless tiny droplets, which tend to disperse underwater rather than on the surface. Some of the more cynical observers of the Deepwater Horizon spill suspect that this is actually what BP intended, in order to get as much of the spill as it could out of sight as quickly as possible…

None of these deadly consequences is intended by the companies that hunt for oil beneath the oceans. There’s no question that these corporations are sincerely concerned about mishaps, and that they are truly devastated when a disaster as severe as the Deepwater Horizon spill occurs…

EarthEcho leader Philippe Cousteau Jr., in discussing the Deepwater Horizon blast, explains the issue in even broader terms–terms that cover the entire oil industry’s attitude toward safety versus its eagerness to make a profit.

‘Technology to get at the oil has out-raced our knowledge and abilities to deal with mishaps like this. And in fact, it invites them by pushing into much riskier situations and settings, without care and preparation for the possibilities of accidents…’

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Taken individually, each of the global industry’s ‘mishaps’ is a tragedy. Considered cumulatively, and with the knowledge that the repercussions of these spills last for decades, they add up to nothing less than an epidemic, a worldwide web of oceanic disasters that are becoming more numerous and more severe as the planet’s consumption of fossil fuels pushes the extractors deeper into the deadly realms of ‘tough oil’ and that oil is transported by aging fleets of tankers and through tens of thousands of miles of vulnerable, untended pipelines that are aging as well.”

Oceana