Monday, April 20, 2015

Deepwater Debacle

Amazingly, this isn't the real disaster
Five years ago today, the end of the fossil fuel era on planet earth began. People had found, and accessed, all the easily available crude oil they could find, anywhere on the planet. The pursuit and development of this easily available oil had destroyed civilizations, started wars, generated incredible wealth and driven an industrial revolution that lead to a technological revolution that lead to the space age. But in April of 2010, oil wasn't easy to find, and it was even harder to get. Off the coast of Louisiana, BP did something almost unthinkable. They drilled a fifteen thousand foot well under five thousand feet of sea water. Everything was beyond their ability to control. The wellhead was too deep, the well was too deep, the oil reservoir was too highly pressurized, and if anything went  wrong there was just no way that the engineers could manage it a mile under water.

At 9:45 PM local time, the drill struck a pocket of very high pressure methane. The gas expanded up the well to the Deepwater Horizon rig, where it exploded, and the drilling platform burst into flames. Eleven workers died and the platform capsized and sank two days later. And just like that, nearly a mile under the surface, a wellhead was open and uncontrolled, and a huge volume of crude oil was gushing into the Gulf waters. 

All summer long we watched, the world watched, as the people who drilled the well, who told us the well was safe, who believed - or claimed to believe - that they had the technical and engineering wherewithal to manage such a difficult and monumental project tried one ad hoc scheme after another to seal the blowout. For 87 days, crude oil flowed into one of the richest fisheries in the hemisphere at a a rate of 62,000 barrels per day. Even worse, in a desperate attempt to mitigate an ongoing environmental disaster of the first order, they sprayed almost 2 million gallons of the toxic oil dispersant 'Corexit' into the gulf waters.

And all through May and June, on into July, day after day we saw the smartest people in industry and government try increasingly desperate untested solutions, and day after day they failed, leaving us with the same haunting dim view from a robotic camera 5000 feet under the surface, showing the blasted wellhead pouring crude oil into the gulf. 62,000 barrels every day. Finally, in early September, they were able to cap the well, although there is ongoing disagreement about how much crude oil continues to seep from the Macondo well.

Of course they continue to drill for the earth's remaining oil, regardless of how inaccessible it might be. They continue to recover oil from tar sands, and by hydraulic fracturing. But that night in April of 2010 was the peak, the beginning of the end, a rubicon that cannot be uncrossed. Despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and their corrupt politicians, renewables are the growing energy sector. Hybrid and electric cars are accepted in the market, and the price of solar and wind generated power was close to par with fossil fuels before the collapse of oil prices in 2015.

As other nations build out their alternative generation capacity, the demand for fossil fuels will continue to fall, and with surplus supplies, the price will stay low. In developed nations, electric vehicles will continue to gain in popularity as a usable charging infrastructure is developed. In developing nations, the air pollution problems have gone from nuisance to catastrophe, and they are taking rapid action to reduce their fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, it's very likely that we've already done irreparable damage to the climate and the oceans, but you've got to start somewhere, and all this started with the Deepwater Horizon disaster five years ago.

1 comment:

  1. For insult upon injury, we get those BP ads talking about how much better it is now. And how they've changed.