Deep Horizon: Disaster in the Making

I’ve listened and read much of the news coming from the Gulf of Mexico and as I have taken it in I can’t count the number of times the Deep Horizon accident has been referred to as a disaster. (just Google “disaster in the gulf“) and there you go.  And as the facts and enormity of the situation unfolded I realized that a disaster was at hand, but it was not the loss of human life, nor the ocean floor oil leak.

Yes, the loss of human life, was tragic and deeply saddening, but on a  scale of world or even national events it hardly qualifies as a disaster.

And as for the the oil leaking into the gulf?  Again, tragic, saddening, but not a disaster.  In fact, huge amounts of oil leaking into the ocean from natural seeps is quite common and normal.   I am in no way suggesting that we allow the leak to continue unchecked.   However, almost half the oil in our oceans come from naturally occurring seeps and according to Oil in the Sea III published by the National Academies Press, anywhere from 24  to 61 million gallons per year, seep naturally into the Gulf waters alone.    Off the California coast there are numerous seeps including one near Santa Barbara where 2,000-3,000 gallons per day is released, another that is actually being harvested for natural gas and oil and we’ve all heard of the famous LaBrea Tar Pit.   The volume of oil naturally seeping into the ocean is so great that it has given rise to SOS California an environmental group that supports offshore drilling as a way to relieve the pressure driving the natural seeps and thus the amount of oil released into the ocean.

We should consider this American ingenuity as the Deep Horizon clean up is considered.  And to keep the cost down we should not pay for cleanup, we should pay for recovered crude oil.  Americans will figure a way to make a buck and the answer they come up with may turn into a whole industry.

Here is a great historical description of naturally occurring crude oil.

Pedro Fages, a Spanish explorer and military commander of the Monterey Presidio, in his report to the Viceroy of New Spain recorded the use of tar and oil by the natives near Mission San Luis Obispo. Fages’ account, written in 1775, mentions natives using tar for water- proofing baskets and pitchers and for caulking small boats. Fages also noted ” … pools of bitumen bubbling out of the ground” near the mouth of the Santa Clara River. In 1776, Spanish missionary Pedro Font recorded that “… much tar which the sea throws up is found on the shores, sticking to the stones and dry, little balls of tar are also found. Perhaps there are springs of it which flow out into the sea.” In 1793, during the travels of English explorer James Cook, his navigator, George Vancouver, recorded in his journal that they had anchored off of Goleta. Vancouver reported that the sea was “… covered with a thick, slimy substance, which, when separated or disturbed by any little agitation, became very luminous, whilst the slightest breeze, that came principally from onshore, brought with it a very strong scent of burning tar.” He continued that “… the sea had the appearance of dissolved tar floating on its surface, which covered the ocean in all directions within the limits of our view.”

Crude oil in our oceans is a natural situation and there are bacteria which naturally consume the oil.    So while it is true that the higher than norm volume of oil in the Gulf isn’t pleasing to the eyes or nose and there will be wildlife that suffers, it is also true that the situation will eventually and naturally be remedied.  We sometimes forget what a robust world our God created.

So the leak in itself  is not a disaster, but in how we respond to the leak, we are actually creating multiple disasters.  I see two disasters on the immediate horizon.  First, the regulatory disaster that is already unfolding as politicians and rabid environmentalists leverage public opinion, fed by media coverage, into over regulation.

Obama Clamps down on Offshore Drilling (CNN) — A stern-faced President Barack Obama on Thursday announced steps to limit new oil drilling and exploration as the investigation of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill continues, telling the American people that he is “fully engaged” and ultimately responsible for what he called a catastrophe.

Obama said the government would seek aggressive new operating standards and requirements for offshore oil companies. For now, he said, the government was suspending planned oil exploration of two locations off the coast of Alaska, canceling pending lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and the proposed lease sale off Virginia, and halting the issuance of new permits for deep-water wells for six months.

I don’t think he is any more responsible for this incident than President Bush was for Katrina and I also don’t care if President Obama is “fully engaged”  Whatever that means?  I do care that taxes to feed these new regulations will immediately drive up consumer costs and then a more limited supply, due to companies not willing to work in an over regulated environment, will drive cost up even further.  Does anyone remember the recent shock to our nation when gas prices skyrocketed?    Some would call that a disaster so why, when Deep Horizon type incidents are so rare, does our national government seems bent on creating the economic disaster that accompanies high fuel costs?

The second disaster in the making is a bit more tangible than expected high fuel costs.    With Coast Guard and EPA approval, BP is spraying hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants into Gulf waters to reduce the amount of oil that could reach shore,    Dispersants break up the big clumps of oil and tar which helps them remain at sea rather than wash up on the shore.  The danger to shoreline wildlife will be greatly reduced, however the dispersants used are not benign and could have disastrous effect on the whole of the Gulf for years to come.

Dispersants can contain particular evils. Corexit 9527 — used extensively by BP despite it being toxic enough to be banned in British waters — contains 2-butoxyethanol, a compound that ruptures red blood cells in whatever eats it. Its replacement, COREXIT 9500, contains petroleum solvents and other components that can damage membranes, and cause chemical pneumonia if aspirated into the lungs following ingestion.  Times Online UK

The Bellona Foundation, an international environmental watchdog group out of Norway had this to say about dispersants.

Dispersed oil particles tend to remain in the upper layers of the ocean and as they approach inshore areas, increasingly impact corals, oysters and shrimp.  Dispersed oil particles tend to assume a less visible, more difficult to cleaned-up quality. They also assume pervasive presence in the environment, with increased opportunities for long-term ecological impacts, particularly in coastal areas.

“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,”

MSNBC: Oil dispersants an environmental ‘crapshoot’e describes dispersant use as of last week.

Unprecedented, untested
In the Deepwater Horizon accident, the response team has used more than 670,000 gallons of chemical dispersants as of Fridayfar surpassing any previous use in the United States. Most of it has been sprayed from airplanes, but the Deepwater Horizon response team also has applied at least 55,000 gallons in a completely untested way — injecting it at the well’s leaking riser, some 5,000 feet below the surface.

And Climate Progress sheds a little light on how the dispersants affect ocean life in the Gulf.

The dispersant “pulls the oil into the water in the form of tiny droplets.”

And that means subsurface creatures — from oysters to coral to larval eggs — that might never have had significant exposure to the oil are now going to get a double whammy, getting hit by the oil and by the dispersants. Worse, the oil droplets are now in a form that looks like food (e.g., the same size as algae) to filter feeders like oysters, which otherwise may only have been exposed to the far lower levels of dissolved oil components found under a typical oil slick. The droplets can also clog up fish gills.

On one hand we have a naturally occurring process that will eventually take care of the oil spill and on the other hand we have dispersants creating a real disaster for both wildlife and commercial interests.

We need to do is recognize that the rarity of this type of incident means that existing safety systems are actually pretty good, but we should look for how the system failed in this case so that changes can be made for a safer future.  We also need to recognize that oil is natural for this earth and not be scared to use it or to have it wash up on our beaches from time to time.  There are mechanism for breaking down oil and even trees, phytoplankton, etc  to reign in the byproducts of burning oil and other organic compounds.   Oil is natural in a way that solar panels and lithium ion batteries will never be.

Deep Horizon was a sad unfortunate incident, let’s not make it a disaster.

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