Oil and the path of moderation

Originally published at Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

Oil, of course, is at the center of this whole stinking mess off shore of, but coming to a shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico near (enough to) you. And in the instant case, we have the usual suspects: Halliburton may have failed to properly cement the hole that the oil gushes out of but preferably into a riser pipe leading up to the drilling rig which British Petroleum leased and operated. BP apparently “suggested in a 2009 exploration plan and environmental impact analysis for the well that an accident leading to a giant crude oil spill — and serious damage to beaches, fish and mammals — was unlikely, or virtually impossible.” Now, according to the Los Angeles Times,

BP faces tough questions. Oil industry experts this week compared the accident to a plane crash or space shuttle disaster that may have been the result of a cascading chain of mishaps. There are supposed to be safeguards: sensors that detect changes in pressure, cross-checking protocols, emergency response systems, and people monitoring everything 24 hours a day aboard the rig and by satellite.

“We are all very curious,” said an industry source who asked not to be identified because he worked for a rival oil company. “What happened to all that equipment, all the computer power, all the automated systems and manpower in place, could not be invoked to stop this?”

The assumption is that an oil-rig perfect storm occurred, very quickly. “There would have been a dozen barriers that had to fail in order for this accident to happen,” said Tim Robertson, an oil-spill consultant with Nuka Research and Planning Group in Alaska.

Perhaps the biggest question, to experts, is why the blowout preventer valves didn’t shut. The huge device, which caps the well, is equipped with emergency systems, including a “dead man’s switch,” a device of last resort that is supposed to be fail-safe.

And as even the Washington Post notes way far down in their article about Obama trying to show he’s in charge without taking blame, the White House “must also deal with a parallel issue: Obama’s announcement just last month that he would allow vast new areas of the country’s coastline to eventually be opened to drilling.”

The possibility of further oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is now in question. Writing for Firedoglake, David Dayen explains that “you can basically say goodbye to oil drilling in the Gulf at this point because it’s about to all be gone, skimming to the surface and heading for shore.” He relies on the Los Angeles Times: “If the flow is not stopped, it will exhaust the natural reservoir of oil beneath the sea floor, experts say.”

And stopping that flow won’t be easy:

“Everything about it is unprecedented,” said geochemist Christopher Reddy, an oil-spill expert and head of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “All our knowledge is based on a one-shot event…. With this, we don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

Accidents have occurred before in which oil has gushed from damaged wells, he said. But he knew of none in water so deep.

And “everything is bigger and more difficult the deeper you go,” said Andy Bowen, a research specialist who works with undersea robotics at the Woods Hole center. “Fighting gravity is tough. It increases loads. You need bigger winches, bigger cables, bigger ships.”

There are so many paths to follow in a longer-term view that my head aches thinking about it. There is, of course, that plan to drill off shore, and Obama’s reluctance to abandon it. It didn’t impress capitalists or conservatives. Forbes called it “a classic case of all hat, no cattle.” And as the Los Angeles Times described it,

Conservatives complained it would “lock up” more swaths of ocean than it would open to drilling.

“If the president is trying to offer an olive branch in order to pass climate change, this hardly qualifies as any major step,” said Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the top Republican on the Natural Resources Committee.

Environmentalists were outraged by the plan, but their reaction to this disaster has been so tepid that Jane Hamsher took it as one more piece of evidence that “the progressive movement is officially dead.” And now, Obama has had to hold off.

In covering Obama’s initial announcement, the Los Angeles Times said,

Obama pitched the decision in national security terms and called it “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

“National security” would be a reference to the ever widening crusade against Muslims, particularly in and around the Middle East. But even with all the trouble Israel gets the U.S. into, which the New York Times quoted Obama describing as “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” a plan to drill for oil offshore still didn’t make any sense because,

Analysts cautioned that under the most favorable circumstances, the plan would take years to begin producing new oil and suggested it would not reduce oil imports or gasoline prices substantially.

Chris Bowers figured that the rationales for the plan were a “compromise with ConservaDems” and something called “hippie-punching.” Bowers sees it as “home state pork for Conservadem Senators who are viewed as winnable votes on the energy bill.” And he quotes Obama saying,

Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates between right and left, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place. Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.

Some of us must be getting real tired of hearing about “tired debates between right and left” or between whomever and whomever. Particularly when,

All commercial and recreational fishing has been shut down in the Gulf for a second straight day, and remember we may not control this leak — or outright gusher — for several months. That area provides a third of the nation’s seafood. Basically, the livelihoods of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Americans are at stake.

Particularly when,

The Coast Guard conceded Saturday that it’s nearly impossible to know how much oil has gushed since the April 20 rig explosion, after saying earlier it was at least 1.6 million gallons — equivalent to about 2 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The blast killed 11 workers and threatened beaches, fragile marshes and marine mammals, along with fishing grounds that are among the world’s most productive.

Even at that rate, the spill should eclipse the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident as the worst U.S. oil disaster in history in a matter of weeks. But a growing number of experts warned that the situation may already be much worse.

And particularly when shorelines from Mexico to the eastern seaboard of Florida are threatened. From just this one well.