Home Sweet Home

 

Several months have passed since my trip to Louisiana. While enough time has passed since the oil spill to make it an old news story it isn’t an unimportant one. Several very important reports highlighting preventable causes to the spill, as well as to the effects of it, have emerged recently.

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I returned from my trip to Louisiana on Saturday July 24, 2010. I was driven home from the severely crowded JFK airport. It was close to 90° outside, and even with the air conditioner on inside the car the merciless sun baked anything it shined upon. I imagined some Long Islanders at the beach: women tanning in their bikinis, and men drinking a beer while their skin turned red. A hellish traffic jam ensued eastbound along the Southern State Parkway. Car after car, motionless for minutes at a time with frustrated travelers longing to reach their destinations, lined the entire parkway. It’s no wonder, I thought, how we reached this point of endangering our only world through the pollution caused by, what is for many of us, our only means of travel while, on the contrary, remaining wary of converting our vehicles from fossil fuels to a new alternative energy source.

Thinking about it I almost laughed at how silly it is to own a car full of gas and still not be able to reach one’s destination because of the congestion on our roads. Not to suggest that fuel had anything to do with our traffic woes, I considered the importance of the gasoline that powers our cars, and the oil that was used to make it.

As I write this I am recalling my interview with Roger Camardelle the day prior to my return home.

“You can’t operate all the time and not have a mishap,” Camardelle said of the BP oil spill. Thinking about that now it only reinforces the fact that drilling for oil in our surrounding oceans, and any of Earth’s oceans, leaves it vulnerable to another disaster like the one we watched from April to July. People are prone not only to human error, but miscalculations and in the case of BP and our government, I believe, neglect.

As if to remind me of what effects the spill had on other places in the country I walked in the store the next day and saw a sign reassuring customers it was not selling seafood harvested from the Gulf region.

Long Island, commonly known among residents for its own fishing, still benefits from its waters. In 2003, in fact, recreational boating “contributed $728 million to labor income.”[1]

I imagine Captree’s waters tainted, Long Beach’s sand ruined with tar balls, and Jones Beach’s water un-swimmable. Though such scenarios are unlikely we do depend on seafood to some degree, as do those in NOLA, Grand Isle, and elsewhere.

However, for many Gulf residents oil industry related work is just as much a livelihood as fishing. And so, on this point I believe it’s relevant to mention that throughout the Gulf oil spill, and especially afterward, President Obama, and other elected officials calling for development of alternative energy systems, has frankly not done enough to champion that effort. Moreover, part of why they have failed to bring viable and tough climate change legislation is that they have not stated the most urgent reasons for why America needs such reform:

1.       Climate change is a real danger to us here, and around the globe (and if you still don’t think so then I suggest you take a look at all the vast evidence that points at it being so).

2.       Our dependence on oil, even domestic petroleum, is vulnerable to “mishaps” which at any moment can cause the same sort of disaster we saw this past summer.

3.       Dependence on foreign oil opens us as Americans to future wars in the Middle East (consider Iraq as an example), diplomatic/public relations dilemmas with adversarial leaders, questionable governments, and dictatorial regimes (Hugo Chavez, the Saudi Kingdom), and possible funding of international terrorist organizations with America as its target.

4.       In light of both the environmental disaster this past summer, and our near-economic depression two years ago, America could employ millions of workers in building “green” vehicles, developing alternative energy systems (windmills, solar panels), and maintaining those new systems. The benefits for our economy, its entrepreneurs, and workers are obvious.

A Real Danger

On the first point I made climate change, and its harm to this planet’s inhabitants is quite real

whether one believes it or not. I won’t tell deniers and skeptics to watch An Inconvenient Truth but I would let them know that Dr. Charles David Keeling—who discovered increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—replied to them saying that the real falsehood was that “natural resources and the ability of the earth’s habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human activities are limitless.”[2] His original remarks can be found in his essay “Rewards And Penalties Of Monitoring The Earth.”[3]

In a horrible irony, “the melting of ice in the Arctic through climate change has opened up a region that was once inaccessible” for oil drilling.[4] There is talk of ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean within 20 to 30 years.[5] The melting ice in the arctic forced one polar bear to go swimming for a remarkable nine days in search of “new ice flows.” [6]

This isn’t normal.

Adding evidence to this point two studies published in the journal Nature are suggesting humans are contributing to climate change effects creating more precipitation, and increasing the likelihood of flooding in various parts of the world.[7] In the cold winter I often hear that annoying question: “Where’s that global warming they keep talking about?”

Tuesday December 28, 2010

 

It’s why I like calling it climate change. It’s hard for me to believe these recent winter storms were not part of our effects on increased annual  precipitation.

I also think people instinctively hate being told that they’re doing something wrong.

Mishaps

In addition to ignoring the increasing threat of climate change on our only world there is the ever-present danger of oil spills in our nation’s waters. There is some reason to believe that some of this danger can be attributed to sleazy characters within the Interior Department. In a 2008 New York Times article Charlie Savage describes “allegations of financial self-dealing, accepting gifts from energy companies, cocaine use and sexual misconduct.”[8] The department’s inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found “wrong doing”[9] by employees of the Minerals Management Service (MMS). MMS oversees resource management in the U.S. and its waters. It has since been renamed  the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. “A culture of ethical failure” pervades the agency, Mr.Devaney wrote.[10] This occurred “for much of the Bush administration’s watch.[11] The article went on to describe  a sort royalty in kind program where government employees received gifts which included “golf, ski and paintball outings; meals and drinks; and tickets to a Toby Keith concert, a Houston Texans football game and a Colorado Rockies baseball game.”[12] There were also reports of sexual relationships amongst government employees and oil/gas company representatives.[13]

It’s disturbing to know that oil mishaps can occur because of human error, as well as systematic human character failures within watchdog/regulation departments.

Inspections, one of the ways that the government ensures that our oil rigs are following its safety protocols, have also been put in question.

According to the Wall Street Journal “surprise inspections of deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico dwindled to about three a year over the past decade, even as exploratory drilling far from shore increased…”[14] More disturbing “since 2004 federal authorities haven’t made a single inspection on any of the 50 or so deepwater natural gas and oil production platforms in the Gulf, despite a law requiring periodic unannounced inspections.”[15] The last unannounced visit to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, which is owned and operated by Transocean, was in October 2006—about four years before its fatal explosion.[16]

In light of the BP oil disaster, and evidence of danger on other oil rigs the Obama administration placed a limited ban on further deepwater oil drilling. Interestingly in March 2010, Obama said that he would begin opening “vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling.”[17] From a logical point of view it did seem reasonable that in order to wean the country from oil it would require “tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development”[18] in order to prevent a price shock to American consumers. Following the oil disaster Obama distanced himself somewhat from this idea.

However, the dangers inherit in oil exploration have been evident for some time now.

 

“Since the early 2000s, reports from industry and academia warned of the increasing risk of deepwater blowouts, the fallibility of blowout preventers, and the difficulty of stopping a deepwater spill after it started—a special concern given that deepwater wells, because they’re under such high pressure, can spout as much as 100,000 barrels a day.” [19]

 

In BP’s case it would seem that they had “cut corners” in its drilling process,[20] according to experts and investigators. Robert Bea, an expert in technological disasters and offshore engineering at the University of California, said, “We can expect more of these in the future.”[21]

 

Many Strings Attached

In the past few weeks American officials have been contending with the people’s hunger for freedom in the Middle East, and America’s hunger for fuel in oil-rich countries. Following Tunisia’s mass protests calling for democracy and greater economic opportunities Egyptians soon followed with calls for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. During that 18-day episode there was concern amongst American policy analysts that violent protests could disrupt oil delivery operations that pass through the Suez Canal. Following Mubarak’s resignation investors breathed a sigh of relief that things would be normal once again.[22]

At this moment, however, violent crackdowns on protesters in Libya, an OPEC member country, have raised more concerns about oil production there. Oil prices rose, and stocks fell.[23] This comes on the heels of reports from the Financial Times that about half of Libya’s oil production has been shut down.[24] Further exacerbating people’s worries are insider reports that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi intends to sabotage his oil facilities.[25] Economists are now saying that violence in Libya, and other Middle Eastern countries, is likely to slow growth in the American economy.[26] As James Phillips wrote in the wake of the 1979 oil crisis, “In a very real sense, the West’s addiction to Persian Gulf crude has become the Achilles’ heel of its national security/foreign policy and a potentially disruptive influence on its economy.”[27]

One only needs to look at a map to see the ties between oil rich countries, and the American economy. From the oil crises of the 1970’s, to America’s wars with Iraq, and Hugo Chavez’s administration in Venezuela the U.S. has had to worry itself unnecessarily with its energy woes. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter,[28]has enjoyed friendly relations with America for a long time because of its oil wealth. Though it remains to be seen how the recent calls for democracy, and economic reforms might affect the Saudi Kingdom America should never be on the wrong side of history because of its oil addiction. Similarly America ought not to be wasting its wealth (in defense expenditures, diplomatic/economic spats, and full scale military operations) or prestige with these sorts when better and more stabilizing solutions stand to our benefit.

 

A New Workforce

Finally then, in light of the effect of fossil fuel emissions effects on the environment, the inevitable repetition of oil spills in our future, and the harmful and sometimes immoral ties that bind America to oil-rich regimes perhaps it is more than past time American politicians be honest with their constituencies and admit that we can’t go on like this forever.

In fact, things can be better than this. There are untapped resources in wind and solar energy, and there is still much research that can be made for cleaner, more efficient cars that don’t run on gas. During hard dayss like these it should seem sensible to use this time now to grow jobs in an alternative/clean energy sector.

Why hasn’t our government’s leaders not taken this up as its cause? For those, from any

political party, that claim to be standing for American job growth it seems insulting that they delay, denounce, and deny opportunity for employment to American workers. Especially now as the American economy is recovering, at a snail’s pace, our government could open up a new market that would inevitably need employees to build it.

If China was recently named the second-largest economy in the world[29] and it is beating the United States in its investment of the green energy market[30] it’s something that could, in time, make America #2 in the global economy. Having said that, though Obama has often alluded to this I don’t believe he has done it enough to convince American voters, and he has certainly not willed the courage to take it to issue with his political opponents. After the recent State of the Union address President Obama toured a factory in Wisconsin that has made renewable energy a profitable business for itself.[31] Yet it still remains unclear how he intends to confront congress on progress with regards to this issue. Republicans recently mocked the E.P.A. chief and raised “doubts about the legal, scientific and economic basis of rules proposed by the agency.”[32]Democrats, however, have also joined Republicans in criticizing Obama’s energy budget which included plans to raise research funding for clean energy projects.[33]Now it would seem the Obama administration is stepping back and issuing revised air pollution rules “that will make it easier for operators of thousands of industrial boilers and incinerators to meet federal air quality standards.”[34]So it remains to be seen if Obama will stick to his morals, and force congress to come to terms with our environmental realities or if he, like his predecessors, will surrender to his political realities. Doing this would require speaking candidly with the American people about the unsustainable costs of having oil as our economy’s lifeblood, as well as how very real a threat climate change is for our future. It would also take convincing average Americans that it would benefit them and their children in the long run for our government, and America’s businesses to invest in “green” energy and pass cap and trade legislation.

Barring that, what we will have are more oil spills, more headaches at the gas pump, higher food prices, and a more dangerous planet. So far everything points to that scenario. Following the plugging of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico it was evident that the effects of marine life could be quite catastrophic. Now it’s being reported that baby dolphins are washing up on the shores of Alabama and Mississippi.[35] While the oil spill has not been declared as the cause for these deaths, it’s certainly an obvious possibility. Corexit 9500, the dispersant put to massive use in the Gulf oil disaster, is also a possible culprit. That dispersant is known to be “catastrophic for the phytoplankton, zooplankton, and larvae.”[36]The outcome of this on overall health within Gulf waters also remains to be seen. Despite some rosy claims from the White House that the oil had vanished scientists reported finding a “22-mile plume of oil droplets from BP’s rogue well in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico.”[37]Meanwhile BP is crying about proposed settlements for damage claims being too generous.[38]

Following my experience I believe that our oil drilling operations around this earth are, indeed, prone to a “mishap” and that if anything we are past time to consider how to have an economy that doesn’t depend upon oil. Opponents mock electric cars, and solar-powered vehicles by claiming they still use up water, another limited resource, and that they’re not as efficient. The technology is there, however, and all that’s needed is further incentive for innovators and entrepreneurs to develop  affordable, clean-energy powered vehicles that aren’t dependent on oil from unfriendly/questionable countries. Those who challenge the urgency of this issue by claiming we only need to develop domestic oil drilling operations should remember the Ixtoc 1 oil spill of 1979 which spilled about 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico,[39]the Exxon-Valdeez spill of 1989, and last year’s oil spill courtesy of British Petroleum.

As I see it, Earth is our only home, and we should make damn sure it is inhabitable for future generations.

Mandy Joye, a biochemist at the University of Georgia, said it quite well:

“The Deepwater Horizon incident is a consequence of our global addiction to oil… Incidents like this are inevitable as we drill in deeper and deeper waters… If this isn’t a call to green power, I don’t know what is.”[40]

 

 


[1] Branca, Barbara. Tanski, Jay. “Recreational Boating is Big Business.” http://www.seagrant.sunysb.edu/nysportfishing/articles/RecBoatingBiz.pdf

[2] Gillis, Justin. The New York Times, “A Scientist, His Work and a Climate Reckoning,” December 21, 2010, p.A1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/22/science/earth/22carbon.html?pagewanted=1&sq=gore%20climate%20change&st=cse&scp=44

[3] http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.energy.23.1.25?journalCode=energy.2

[4] Whiteman, Hillary, “Russia presents vision of Arctic wealth,” September 22, 2010.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/09/22/russia.arctic.resources/index.html?iref=allsearch

[5] Ibid.

[6]Hastings, Rob, The Independent, “Melting sea ice forces polar bear to swim for nine days,” January 26, 2011.

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/melting-sea-ice-forces-polar-bear-to-swim-for-nine-days-2194481.html

[7] Schiermeier, Quirin. Nautre, February 16, 2011. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110216/full/470316a.html

[8] Savage, Charlie. The New York Times, “Sex, Drug Use, and Graft Cited in Interior Department,” September 11, 2008.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gold, Russel. The Wall Street Journal, “Inspectors Rarely Surprised Oil Rigs,” October 11, 2010.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Broder, John M., The New York Times, “Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling for First Time,” March 31, 2010.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Bourne, Jr., Joel K., National Geographic, “The Deep Dilemma,” October 2010, pp.44.

[20] Bourne, Jr., Joel K., National Geographic, “The Deep Dilemma,” October 2010, pp.45.

[21] Bourne, Jr., Joel K., National Geographic, “The Deep Dilemma,” October 2010, pp.52

[22] Powell, Barbara. Bloomberg, “Gasoline Fluctuates, Crude Oil Declines as Mubarak Resigns,” February 11, 2011. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-02-11/gasoline-gains-on-speculation-warmer-weather-will-boost-demand.html

[23] Angela, Moon. Reuters, “US STOCKS-Futures down as oil prices rally on Libyan turmoil,” February 24, 2011. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/24/markets-stocks-idUSN2423863620110224

[24] Madrigal, Alexis. The Atlantic, “At Least Half of Libyan Oil Production Shut Down,” February 23, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/02/at-least-half-of-libyan-oil-production-shut-down/71618/

[25] Baer, Robert. Time, “Gaddafi’s Next Move: Sabotage Libya’s Oil and Sow Chaos?” February 22, 2011. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2052961,00.html

[26] Rich, Motoko. The New York Times, “Rising Oil Prices Pose the Latest Threat to U.S. Economy,” February 24, 2011, pp. A1.

[27] Phillips, James. Backgrounder (the Heritage Foundation), “The Iranian Oil Crisis,” February 28, 1979. http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1979/02/the-iranian-oil-crisis

[28] https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2176rank.html?countryName=Libya&countryCode=ly&regionCode=af&rank=15#ly

[29] Bloomberg News, “China Overtakes Japan as World’s Second-Biggest Economy,” August 16, 2010. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-08-16/china-economy-passes-japan-s-in-second-quarter-capping-three-decade-rise.html

[30] McGowan, Elizabeth. “Military v. Climate Security: U.S. and China Worlds Apart.” Solve Climate News, January 11, 2011. http://solveclimatenews.com/news/20110111/military-v-climate-security-us-and-china-worlds-apart

[31] Conroy, Scott, “Obama Touts Economic Competiveness in Wisconsin,” January 27, 2011. http://realclearpolitics.blogs.time.com/2011/01/27/obama-touts-economic-competitiveness-in-wisconsin/

[32] Broder, John M. The New York Times, “Republicans Assail E.P.A. Chief on Greenhouse Gas Limits,” Feburuary 9, 2011, pp.A16.

[33] Doggett, Tom. Reuters, “Lawmakers blast Obama’s energy budget,” February 16, 2011. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/16/us-usa-energy-budget-idUSTRE71F5BA20110216

[34] Broder, John M. The New York Times, “E.P.A. Issues Scaled-Back Emission Rules for Boilers,” February 23, 2011, pp.A18.

[35] Kuo, Vivian. CNN, “Deaths of Baby dolphins worry scientists,” February 24, 2011. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/02/24/gulf.dolphins/index.html?iref=allsearch

[36] Bourne, Jr., Joel K., National Geographic, “The Deep Dilemma,” October 2010, pp.52

[37] Goldenberg, Suzanne. Guardian, “BP oil spill: scientists find giant plume of droplets ‘missed’ by official account,” August 19, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/aug/19/bp-oil-spill-scientists-plume?INTCMP=SRCH

[38] Schwartz, John. The New York Times, “BP Says Settlement Terms in Spill Are Too Generous,” February 17, 2011, pp.A19.

[39] Bourne, Jr., Joel K., National Geographic, “The Deep Dilemma,” October 2010, pp.42-43

[40] Bourne, Jr., Joel K., National Geographic, “The Deep Dilemma,” October 2010, pp.43

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