Saturday, May 29, 2010

Post # 17: The Gulf Oil Leak – A Tragedy In Slow Motion

Like virtually everyone else, I've been watching the unfolding tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico with a growing sense of doom and sickness in my stomach.  The oil has continued to spew at an alarming rate from the twisted remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig since the day of the explosion.  It's like watching a tornado destroy you home in super-slow motion.  And it continues.

The cost of the oil rig disaster in human lives (11 prompt fatalities) is terrible.  The ecological cost to our gulf cost is yet to be bounded, grows by the day, and will probably linger beyond my lifetime.  The economic impact on millions of Americans who draw their living from the sea and the vacation industry will likely be profound.

Why did this have to be the case - given the leak occurred ?

There are many avenues of pursuit to address this question, but the one I've been pondering during the past several days has to do with a simple technical reality: if the oil leak where in 200 feet of water, rather than 5000 feet of water, the leak might have been stopped by now.

Access is a prerequisite for remediation.  It would be nice if we could put human divers down there to work the problem.  I'm not a diver, but I understand commercial divers, using the best available equipment, can reach depths of less than 2000 feet and then only for very limited times.  More routine commercial diving is done in waters of less than 300 feet in depth.

It's a given that if one is in the oil drilling business, one must drill where the oil is to be found.  This said, drilling in shallow water is safer than drilling in deep water.  Easier access if things go wrong.  Oil drilling on land is safer still.  Even easier access.  (This does not account for the varying degress of sensitively of the natural environments surrounding drilling operations.)

But most vacationeers who pay a hefty sum for their ocean-front condos are not inclined to favor those places in which the views are dominated by oil rigs.  In this respect, oil rigs share some of the same "vista challenge" issues as wind turbines.

So we can drill in deep water.  Out of sight, out of mind.  And when something goes wrong, it may be devilishly-difficult to correct.  Or we can drill in shallow water.  Fouls our view of that golden sunset, but we can probably fix a problem in 200-300 feet of water.  Or we can drill on land.  Access not an issue,  but many of the remaining desirable drilling sights are in sensitive environmental areas.

As a personal note here, I've always been very circumspect about off-shore oil drilling due to my concerns that something like the Deepwater Horizon disaster might happen.  And I've never embraced drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or similar sensitive ecosystems.

Just one more illustration of the complexity of our energy challenges and the difficult choices we must make to tackle them.


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