The low Horizons of modern society

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is bad, but it is not a warning from nature about mankind's hubris.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

An accident on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has created an oil slick that threatens to cause considerable damage to tourist beaches, fisheries and wildlife in southern USA. It has also created an opportunity for greens to bash industrial society.

On 20 April, an oil rig being leased by BP and operated by Transocean – which was called the Deepwater Horizon – was completing the drilling of a deep well about 40 miles from the coast of Louisiana. There was a massive surge of gas and the system designed to prevent such an event from causing serious damage – the blowout protector – failed to work. As a result, the platform was engulfed in gas which then ignited. In the explosion, 11 members of the 126-strong crew were killed. Two days later, the Deepwater Horizon sank. At some point during these events, the pipeline from the well was damaged and is currently thought to be leaking 5,000 barrels (800,000 litres) of oil per day.

There have been many attacks on the oil industry, and on BP in particular. But one of the most disturbing aspects of the coverage of the accident is how little mention there has been of the 11 dead rig workers; the potential for the death of birds and the possibility of damaged coastal wetlands seem to exercise journalists and commentators far more than the fate of the men on the rig. To the extent that the safety of workers is discussed, it is only done in order to damn the whole idea of offshore drilling and the companies that do it.

The predictable result of the accident has been to question the wisdom of offshore oil exploration. California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has already scrapped plans to increase drilling off the Californian coast. ‘You turn on the TV and see this enormous disaster; you say to yourself, why would we want to take on that kind of risk?’, he told a press conference last week. President Barack Obama has suspended the approval process for drilling off the coast of Virginia. The accident is a major embarrassment for Obama, who only recently decided to approve more offshore drilling. In April, the president had declared: ‘It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills… They are technologically very advanced.’

A good example of the question mark now being thrown over the whole idea of deepwater drilling comes, not from the usual suspects in the environment pages, but from the business section of The Times (London): ‘As supplies of easy oil — the kind that gushes from vast fields in the Middle East — have become scarce, so the industry has pressed further into more challenging environments. It has developed new technology to produce oil in the Arctic, from fields rich in poison gas in Central Asia and from the bitumen-rich sands of northern Canada. Few motorists consider where the hydrocarbon molecules that power their cars actually come from — but it is a journey that every year becomes longer and more tortuous.’

The widely held assumption seems to be that maybe we – not just BP but humanity itself – simply overstretched ourselves in trying to get oil in ever-tougher conditions. It’s too dangerous. The risk of accidents that cost lives and ecosystems is just too high.

It is certainly the case that oil production in these new conditions is a daunting challenge. The well created by the Deepwater Horizon is 18,000 feet (5,500 metres) deep. Back in March, an oil industry expert, Robin Walker of WesternGeco, explained to The Economist just how difficult deepwater drilling is with the following analogy: a large offshore oil rig is like a matchbox on top of a two-storey building, with ‘the upper floor filled with water and the lower floor filled with rock, sand and, in some cases, salt. Striking an oil reservoir with a drill pipe is then like hitting a coin at the base of the building with a strand of human hair.’

The technology that enables the difficult task of deepwater drilling is rather extraordinary. Deepwater Horizon was built in South Korea by Hyundai Heavy Industries at a cost of $350million. It weighs over 32,000 tonnes and is nearly 100 metres high. The platform was being leased by BP from Transocean at a cost of $500,000 per day. Deepwater Horizon holds the record for the deepest well ever drilled – some 35,000 feet.

The conclusion that this is all too risky, however, is excessive. There is the small matter of necessity: there is no practical alternative to oil as an energy source for many purposes at the moment. Replacing oil, or sharply reducing consumption, in a very short period of time would cause major disruption to the US economy. To simply stop drilling near America’s coastlines, with the result that oil would have to be imported from elsewhere, could lead to a sharp rise in oil prices worldwide while simply exporting any risk. Out of sight, out of mind.

Also, a little bit of perspective is required, especially when it comes to the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident.

Firstly, while 800,000 litres of oil leaking per day sounds like an enormous quantity, the impression is often given that the Gulf of Mexico will soon be full of oil. Far from it. It would take those leaks three days just to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem quite such an enormous amount. When the oil hits the surface, much of it evaporates before it can do any serious harm, especially in the warm climes of the Gulf of Mexico. Choppy waters, winds and selective burning disperses or consumes still more. Oil is a naturally produced hydrocarbon and will break down in due course like any other such hydrocarbon. In fact, as much oil naturally leaks from the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico every day as is leaking from the damaged pipeline.

The current emergency is an also-ran in the oil-spill hall of fame. When the supertanker Torrey Canyon struck rocks off the south-west of England in 1967, it leaked 139million litres of oil. The Amoco Cadiz dumped 254million litres of crude oil on to the French coast in 1978. The Exxon Valdez disaster poured a (mere) 40million litres of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. But the Valdez disaster was not in warm, deep open sea like the Deepwater Horizon, which is why its effects were so dramatic.

Obama was broadly right back in April: most of the really big oil spills come from tankers, not from rigs. The most notable exception to this was the accident on the Ixtoc I rig in 1979, which polluted the Gulf of Mexico with nearly 500million litres of oil. All of these events, however, pale in comparison to the disaster of the Gulf War oil spill in 1991, when Iraqi soldiers flooded the Persian Gulf with oil in an attempt to prevent a US invasion. Even the low end of estimates suggest that these actions caused three times as much oil spill as the Ixtoc I – 1.5billion litres – and the highest estimates suggest it could have been 100 times greater than that. In comparison to that disaster, the Deepwater Horizon spill is in positively homeopathic quantities.

Also, it isn’t clear, as yet, that this accident could have easily been prevented. In another New York Times article, energy industry consultant Ken Arnold argues that ‘the Deepwater Horizon was hardly without safety precautions: it had manual switches at several different stations and two backups — a “dead man” switch that would automatically send a shut-off signal to the valve if there was a loss of electrical communication from the surface, as well as a mechanism to allow a remotely operated vehicle to shut it off. Either these all failed, or they worked and the valve still failed to close.’

It is vitally important that BP, and the oil industry generally, learns lessons from this accident. But it is wrong to overstate what has happened, and it is especially wrong to use this accident as an example of why mankind should stop ‘interfering’ with nature in his various risky ways. Yes, it would be a major step forward to find clean, reliable and economic replacements for the oil we use today, but for now, we’ve got to keep drilling.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Science & Tech

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