On April 20th the Deepwater Horizon, a sophisticated floating oilrig, lost control of the methane it had tapped into. The platform exploded, claimed the lives of 11 workers and sunk to the ocean floor two days later. Drilling 40 miles off the shores of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, the well was working on an exploratory field located 13,000 feet below sea level. Imagine a massive steel structure connected to the floor of the ocean 5000 feet below with a thin straw 21 inches in diameter. The straw snapped, the back up systems failed and the oil is pouring into the ocean. When oil tankers run aground the spill is limited to its load, not more. With the Gulf disaster the leak will continue till the well is capped or pressure is relieved by adjacent wells. These measures are slated for early August completion and will hopefully stanch the flow of oil. Make no mistake: off shore is oil production is risky business – a physical risk for the people and their families that work on the wells and a financial risk to the businesses that operate in the field.
In the 53 days since the accident between 2.2 million gallons to 24 million gallons of unrefined oil has entered the warm waters of the Gulf. This is the largest off shore spill in our nation’s history. The toll on the regional ecosystem will affect birds, fish, marine mammals and the oceanic plant life these animals depend on. Ocean currents, wind and tides are moving the surface slick toward the bayous, marshes and beaches of the Gulf States. Like Yellowstone is to Montana, the beaches and marine environment are a source of recreation, regional identity and a driver of the local economy for the Gulf States. The spill is projected to cost the region 2.5 billion dollars in lost revenue to the fishing and tourism industries. How would Montana handle a disaster in Yellowstone of this magnitude?
When calamity strikes people look to find answers. Was the contractor, Transocean, cutting corners on safety? Is a blowout of this magnitude a normal occurrence, one that comes with the territory? Why did the blowout mechanisms fail? These are reasonable questions that in time will be answered. In the short term we need to focus on containment and clean up and ask how we, as a nation, address energy.
As a nation we compromise 5 % of the world’s population. Due to our energy intensive life style we consume 25% of the world’s oil resources. Globally we are the third largest producer of oil, with close to 30% originating in the Gulf of Mexico. To meet 19.4 million barrels of oil we use each day the United States imports 60 % of the total quantity. Our oil is imported, in order of volume, from Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela and Nigeria. Procuring oil comes at a cost. Be it supporting nations that do not live by the standards of our Constitution or the severe risk of impact to the physical environment, oil is very expensive.
The global supply of oil is finite. In the coming 100 years humanity needs to make the transition from oil to a yet to be discovered form or application of energy. Given the volatility, ease of transport, multiple use and the relative low cost of petroleum this is an enormous challenge. The “low hanging fruit” in this equation is energy efficiency. Europeans enjoy a quality of life similar to ours and use, on average, half the amount of energy we do. We need to become serious about energy research and knowledge. The subsidies the energy industry enjoys need to be reduced and we need to come to grips with the real price of a gallon of gas, pollution and all.