Friday, April 30, 2010

It's Oil the Same to Me

Well, it's hard to know how to start on this in a way that isn't obvious or smarmy. Or both.
A couple of weeks ago, the President opened up 167 million acres of ocean off our Atlantic and Gulf Coasts to oil exploration and eventual drilling. This week it looks like the oil industry isn't really ready to keep its promise of doing it cleanly after all. Not that they aren't trying. Having failed to activate the "blowout preventer" 5,000 feet down at the wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, they have now decided to just burn the oil slick. I only hope that this isn't the new technology that the industry said would make deepwater drilling clean and safe when the President made his announcement.

We are learning some things here, however. The New York Times quoted Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert at Rice University. In a fit of perhaps unintended honesty, Jaffe said that deepwater oil drilling was," as technically challenging as space travel." And then hastily added, "but safer." She went on to say that in the last 15 years there was not a single spill of over 1,000 barrels among the 4,000 active platforms off our coasts.

Let's set a few things straight. First of all, it's not terribly difficult to be safer than space travel. And when Jaffe said that deepwater drilling "is assisted by thousands of supercomputers," that didn't make me feel any better. In fact, use of the phrase "thousands of supercomputers" is so egregious that it made me doubt that she has any serious technical judgment. Secondly, space travel is as safe as it is (which isn't great) because of meticulously controlled and choreographed operations by engineers. Engineers are crawling all over any launch operation in numbers that it's hard to imagine the oil companies funding.

But let's talk about those spills.

Space travel is daring because, not only is it risky, but the consequences of failure are so grave. It is this combination of risk and the gravity of the consequences that we assess when we decide if a given activity is worthwhile. I mean, light bulbs fail every day, but no one cares because the consequences are so trivial. Conversely, bridges seldom fail (Although they sometimes do!), but the consequences are so horrendous that we mandate periodic inspections.

So it is not the frequency of large oil spills that matters, but the potential they have for causing significant damage. (See Valdez, Exxon) And when that damage is not only to water, air, land, and wildlife, but to people's health and livelihoods in fishing, tourism, and other activities, we ought to really get it all in the balance before deciding that, yes, we are going to drill oil in deep water. Or anywhere for that matter.

So whether they are drilling with new or old technology, in deep or shallow water, it comes down to those, perhaps rare, but definitely horrendous, failures that forever change a place and people's lives. When you look at those, it's oil the same to me.

Image courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

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