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.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Post # 16: The Price of Our Addiction To Fossil Fuel

I was listening again tonight to the latest news from the Gulf Coast regarding the evolving consequences of the April 22 explosion at  the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  The news reminded me of the price we pay for our "addiction" to oil.  While the potential environmental consequences are alarming, it is the human cost that attracted my attention.

Eleven workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon accident.  The Deepwater Horizon explosion is the deadliest U.S. offshore drilling rig explosion since 1968, when 11 died and 20 where injured in an explosion on a rig owned by Gulf Oil.  The Deepwater Horizon tragedy follows on the heels of a March 2005 explosion in BP's Texas City refinery, when 15 were killed and hundreds were injured.

Then I thought of the tragic loss of 29 coal miners in early April in the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia.  The Sago mining disaster in 2006 killed twelve miners.  The U.S. coal mining industry reported it's lowest fatality count in history in 2009 when 12 fatalities occurred.  (Historically, China apparently has suffered around 5000 coal mining fatalities every year.)

The extraction and use of fossil fuels is a dirty, dangerous business.

I consulted several sources in an attempt to uncover the mining fatality statistics for uranium mining.  All the sources I consulted acknowledged that uranium mining is much safer than coal mining, but I did not uncover hard statistics of the direct fatalities resulting from the uranium mining enterprise.  I will continue to seek hard data (I'm sure it's available - just couldn't find it conveniently tonight) and I will update this posting when I uncover meaningful data.

I did uncover an interesting (and somewhat controversial) article from the Next Big Thing website (  The article presents an analysis of the integrated "life-cycle" fatality rate per TWh of electricity generated from nuclear, coal, wind, and solar energy sources.   (I caution that credible analyses of this type of are devilishly difficult to perform.)   This analysis utilized a variety of data sources and it's methodology is not completely transparent.   So, while I cannot validate or endorse this analysis as authoritative, the results do provide interesting fodder for energy-geek party conversation:

Coal: 163 fatalities per TWh
Rooftop Solar:  0.44-0.83 fatalities per TWh
Wind:  0.15 fatalities per TWh
Hydro: 0.1 fatalities per TWh
Nuclear: 0.04 fatalities per TWh

I'll continue my search for more detailed analyses...

The bottom line?

1.  We pay a high cost in human loss and suffering from our addiction to fossil fuels.
2.  There is no zero-risk energy production technology.  No free lunch.
3.  Energy generation from renewable sources is far superior to that from fossil energy sources.
4.  Nuclear energy is among the most human-friendly, if not the most human-friendly energy production option.

Nuclear energy: a sustainable energy option.