Drill, Baby...Oops!

The news from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is not good. If the NOAA estimates are right about the size of the spill it could dwarf Exxon Valdez:

Over the last few days, estimates had held that the Gulf of Mexico oil spilling was leaking about 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, into the water each day--bad, but still not historically bad on a scale like the spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. Except now, after closer investigation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that oil company BP's estimate might in fact be five times too low.

Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the Coast Guard's point person, gave the new estimate yesterday as the Coast Guard began its planned controlled burn of some of the oil. While emphasizing that the estimates are rough given that the leak is at 5,000 feet below the surface, Admiral Landry said the new estimate came from observations made in flights over the slick, studying the trajectory of the spill and other variables [The New York Times]. Because the oil below the surface is so hard to measure or estimate, NOAA's numbers are still rough estimates, too. BP's chief operating officer told ABC News he thinks the number is probably somewhere between the two estimates.

But if NOAA's high-end number right, the oil spill caused by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon just entered a new class of awful. Do the math: At the previous estimation--1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil per day--it would have taken this spill 261 days, or more than eight continuous months, to dump as much oil into the sea at the Exxon Valdez did near Alaska in 1989. But, if it's true that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) are entering the Gulf each day, it would take just 53 days to top the Valdez' total of 11 million gallons. Already 9 days have passed since the explosion.

Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal Reports, the well doesn't have a particular sort of emergency automatic shut-off standard in Norway and Brazil - although there's some question of whether the shut off would have worked, the oil industry in the US apparently argued against the necessity of these devices:

The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident. When wells do surge out of control, the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in simulations, are intended as a last resort.

.Nevertheless, regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil, in effect require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.

The U.K., where BP is headquartered, doesn't require the use of acoustic triggers.

On all offshore oil rigs, there is one main switch for cutting off the flow of oil by closing a valve located on the ocean floor. Many rigs also have automatic systems, such as a "dead man" switch as a backup that is supposed to close the valve if it senses a catastrophic failure aboard the rig.

As a third line of defense, some rigs have the acoustic trigger: It's a football-sized remote control that uses sound waves to communicate with the valve on the seabed floor and close it.

Meanwhile, the potential effect on fisheries and associated livelihoods, thousands of unique species and residents are likely to be disastrous. Among the potential victims:

The Gulf region contains about five million acres of wetlands, which are an essential habitat for three quarters of all of the migrating waterfowl that cross the US.

There are more than 3,300 marine species in the Gulf, including six endangered species of whale. Its shores include the only known nesting beach of Kemp's Ridley, the world's most endangered sea turtle. There are also populations of protected Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles, which are about to begin their nesting season and would be particularly vulnerable to oil washed up on beaches.

There are several shark species declared to be "of concern" because of declining populations. The Gulf is also home to one of the world's largest populations of bottlenose dolphins, with an estimated 45,000 in its waters.

It is interesting that this emerging situation is occurring at the same time as the final approval of Cape Wind, the controversial wind farm held up by NIMBYism and shortly following Obama's opening of offshore drilling. Our future as a society is going to involve a certain measure of raping the environment - we know this. We have been casual about the consequences we can see, and reluctant to make visible the full consequences of our extraction - we assume that our resources are clean if we don't have to live near the pollution they engender. This, of course is not true.

It is easy to cry "Drill, baby, drill" and harder to live with the real world consequences of our consumption - increasingly hard. And there aren't a lot of good answers - but one of the things I think is essential is that we understand what we are talking about. It is easy to march to close a coal plant - and it is necessary that we do close them. But unless we are prepared to bring our electrical generation home, to do with less and to find ways to live with less, that march is meaningless. We can't oppose offshore drilling and drive around as much as we like, nor can we support offshore drilling...except when it might affect our lives and livelihood.

Americans live in a world where there's so much "away" - we laud ourselves for reductions in pollutants that we have merely offshored, we laud ourselves for costs that we have merely deferred upon the next generation. We throw "away" so many things, and push "away" so much knowledge. I'm deeply grieved about this oil spill, and I hope from it may emerge a little more knowledge, a little more recognition that there is no such place as "away"


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Similar to the theme I was ranting about in your blog's comments section regarding the sense of entitlement some people have to government handouts, this time here we see the greater society's sense of entitlement. We in the US mainstream think we can have it all, and just push the pollution away onto somebody else.

Rich or poor, a a good, old-fashioned sense of humbleness about our real, material, personal needs would go a long way towards ameliorating our social and environmental situation.

But I am certainly part of the problem as of late. I have bought four tanks of gas in the past month, which is way over what I usually consume. It's a dirty feeling.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

I am also deeply grieved. It's headed right for us.

I'm 2 miles from the Mississippi Coast. I went to bed last night thinking I needed to find time today to take what might be one last walk on our beloved beach before it starts becoming a tar pit.

I woke up this morning and stepped out my back door and came back in quickly. I can smell the oil. I don't know if I'm smelling the burn off they did yesterday, or if it's just the nearing of the oil monster and the direction of the breeze. We've had the windows open a lot recently with the lovely spring weather--summer is far too hot and humid to open the windows even at night, even with extremely low air conditioner use. But this morning I had to close the house up because of the stink.

I feel sick in my gut just like in the months after Katrina hit us. My heart is breaking. I'm thinking of the birds I love, of the fishing industry, of the impact on the economy, of the final wrecking of what beauty Katrina left us here in this really lovely place.

I keep hoping it will go away, not come to our shore, but as I smell it I know there's not much hope.

I want to be angry, but who to be angry with? No matter how much I've scaled back energy use, I'm still part of the demand for oil.

What a punch in the gut.

Sharon -- very well stated. The final 3 paragraphs are well-worth the small amount of time taken to read them. I wish more people got this message, and take it seriously.


You have my deep and sincere sympathy. For all that helps. As a kid I lived with the Gulf literally in my front yard, so I have some idea of what it would feel like to lose it.

Heard on the radio this morning that when this drilling platform was proposed, the company successfully fought off a proposed requirement for some sort of backup emergency shut off valve because it would have been "too expensive". Because, surely, it never would have been needed.

It is very difficult to keep making one's futile stabs at positive whatever in the face of overwhelming corporate power to totally fuck up everything. Well, I suppose I'll go back to rearranging deck chairs over at my blog anyway.

Deanna, you have all my sympathies - I'm so very sorry.


I was in Corpus Christi, TX, when they were selling "Where were you, when the slick hit the sand?" t-shirts, about 1980. This isn't the first time for the region.

It seems funny that they haven't made plans for a temporary shelter and work area dome construction about the bottom of the well, just to address situations where they gotta get some people at the pipe and valve, and correct the situation.

It also seems strange no oil company is rigged up to gather and process that leaked oil. At some point it must become cheaper than working oil shale and oil sands.

I guess I have to acknowledge - those people counting on technology to solve problems tomorrow, are a bit short sighted about the problems of today that technology still hasn't solved. This whole topic casts another shadow on hopes for an unlimited future, free of resource, energy, and economic constraints.

Brad - hey, I used to live in Corpus as a kid. Went to Flour Bluff Elementary. :-)

"It seems funny that they haven't made plans for a temporary shelter and work area dome construction about the bottom of the well, just to address situations where they gotta get some people at the pipe and valve, and correct the situation."

You missed the bit where the well head is at 5,000 feet. Humans do not work there; ever, so far as I know. Machines only. Deepest record dive using any equipment is only around 1,000 feet- and they weren't working; they were in a hurry.

Too bad we can't require all those folks chanting "drill baby drill" to report to the gulf coast for cleanup duty. This is the real world though, so it will yet again be the "damned libruls" cleaning up.


Oil spills have external costs. So do car crashes (even renewable fuel powered ones). Few consider driving to be fundamentally immoral, usually due to an implicit cost-benefit analysis recognising that the convenience of cars are worth their dangers.

I ask you to consider the same for oil drilling. That's not to say that oil spills shouldn't be punished, any more than reckless driving shouldn't be punished. But your argument appears to be that offshore drilling is a Bad Thing because of its costs, disregarding its benefits. Now even if you don't like the way those benefits will be distributed in a free market, that's not the only option! We live in a world of trade-offs: offshore drilling with taxes used for some environmental purpose may be well be "greener" than an expensive ostensibly "clean" technology.

One good thing has come out of this mess -- plans for drilling offshore have been banned by the president.

By Heather Gray (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

The grease is hitting the beach this morning. Oh well. The Gulf Coast is a sacrifice area anyway, what with the anoxic zone that forms every year due to fertilizer runoff from the American Midwest. People have to eat and farmers must use massive amounts of NPK in order to feed us all, so the "dead zone" is inevitable and just the price we pay for food in out bellies. People must drive also, so spills like this one will happen. Too bad but oh well, once again. The economy grew 3.2% this past quarter due to all of us doing our duty by driving to the mall and spending. We don't need shrimp anyway. And what's a Kemp's Ridley sea turtle done for any of us recently? "Drill, baby, drill"!! Globules of crude in anoxic sediments. Yummy! "Future's so bright, gotta wear shades..."

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

I was thinking the first oil spill from one of the closer-to-shore drills authorized by Obama should be named after him. Hey, he's got 3 names, same as me. Name the first three oil spills from these can be named after him.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

This oil spill has just really affected me,and I'm not usually the crunchy granola type. I'm not an environmentalist or activist in any sense of the word. I've read about the fishermen who's livelihood is being affected and of course all of the wild life, our non-speaking partners with whom we share this world, and it just breaks my heart. I think, how could this have happened? How could we do this to where we live? I live farther from the spill, in Houston, Texas, but it is still in our gulf. It feels like genocide or murder - all I can think of in terms of this accidental oil spill is death - and we hurting and indeed slowly killing more than just the animals in the ocean and wetlands, etc. Animals that are endangered anyway who will now groom themselves and swallow the oil, which causes internal bleeding and other damages. Animals have to sit in our mess when long exposure to skins causes burns, and oil in feather prevents bird from insulating themselves.

Or what about the 100,000+ gallons of chemicals they are dumping in the water to break up the oil. We live, work, and eat from the sea, all of us, even if you don't live anywhere near this. This affects us all. I read a fisherman's quote who said he didn't know if should be angry at and blame the coast guard, the government, or BP.

We are all responsible for this - how have we let let this happen? How can we keep passing off our monstrous mistakes to our children with an oops and a sorry. We can't take this one back, the damage is done. What will we learn from this? Nothing? I expect superficial and never-ending political arguments over whether to continue with deep sea oil drills. What has happened to us??

By Jayne Anne (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

Jayne Anne- I've thought long and hard about an answer for your passionate question.

There are, of course, a great many answers.

I'm going to give just one here, an ugly one that is an embarrassment to our species- but is also a nearly universal part of us. This is a very large piece of the puzzle.

Have you ever driven through a town with a commercial pulp mill nearby?

Few would stop to eat lunch in a town like this. The smell of the pulp mill is heavy, ubiquitous, and truly nauseating. It's equivalent to the overpowering miasma you'd experience standing in a commercial hog farm's sewage lagoon. Most folks can't wait to escape it.

If you ask someone who lives in a pulp mill town about the stench, though- their most common answer is a bright, cheerful,

"Smells like money to me!" - with a smile.

Greenpa: Why is that an "embarrassment" to our species? It makes sense that the sorts of people who live in towns with pulp mills will be those who don't much mind the smell and/or benefit from the jobs. Those who hated it would have long since sold their properties to those who don't mind it much. Now, you might not like the smell, but no-one is forcing you (or anyone else) to live there.

I imagine if you were given the power, you would probably mandate these pulp mills to be shut down. You would be going against the preferences of the vast majority of the town residents for what? To reduce some environmental costs that are overwhelming borne by the residents themselves.

Could this be the final straw for the camel?

By Dave Leng (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

Oil spills have external costs. So do car crashes (even renewable fuel powered ones). Few consider driving to be fundamentally immoral, usually due to an implicit cost-benefit analysis recognising that the convenience of cars are worth their dangers.

I'm going to guess that you've missed this rather relevant post Sharon made a while back.

Those who hated it would have long since sold their properties to those who don't mind it much.

where did you learn economics? the move from an undesirable location to a desirable location is a great cost, and can only be undertaken by those with a lot of resources (money, time, skills that will find them employment elsewhere), which are usually not the people working at pulp mills, to begin with.

What you're basically saying (and I hope it's merely out of ignorance) is that poor people deserve to suffer the consequences of their employment. That's kinda messed up, you know.

Jadehawk: In that post, Sharon does not advocate the abolition of private cars. This post, however, does not appear to advocate offshore drilling in moderation.

Jadehawk, 2nd comment:

If they really hated, the costs of moving would be lower than the costs of staying.

Your point is valid, though, in that the opening of a pulp mill does impose real costs on a number of existing residents. (Residents who migrate there later already have these costs internalised in the property/rental prices). However, are those sufficient grounds for preventing the construction of the mill? If the mill provides sufficient economic benefits, probably not. There are numerous ways in which everybody could be made better off - say, if the mill owners are required to give a one-off compensation payment to all residents.

If they really hated, the costs of moving would be lower than the costs of staying.

last I checked, hate is not a valid form of currency; therefore, that's a stupid statement. when you already barely make do, then moviong is only an option if you're planning to sacrifice one or more of your children to the gods.

and a one-off compensation, as you suggest, would be calculated on what, precisely? Something tells me no business would be willing to give their future employees enough money for them not to need to work there, and instead be able to go somewhere nicer.

Jadehawk: In that post, Sharon does not advocate the abolition of private cars. This post, however, does not appear to advocate offshore drilling in moderation.

are you aware of the difference between abolishing something already ingrained into a society's infrastructure, and preventing something new to be done?

In effect, both cars and offshore drilling shouldn't exist. However, it's completely impossible to get rid of all cars all at once, while it's perfectly doable to not build something.

IOW, it's to a large degree a matter of starting points.

" However, are those sufficient grounds for preventing the construction of the mill? If the mill provides sufficient economic benefits, probably not. "

Being familiar with corporate choices regarding placement of pulp mills- I assure you that finding a location where the present inhabitants are so poor as to be unable to protest effectively, unable to move away and escape, and so hungry they will jump at any work they can find- is #2 on their list of considerations. #1 being abundant availability of cheap substrates. #3 being ability to arrange cheap shipping.

And of course I was not intending it all to be limited to pulp mills; that's just an extremely obvious and intestinally urgent example. Of:

Our species' broad ability to accept situations known to exceptionally risky, or known to be hazardous to our children's health- for short term profits/benefits.

Any other primate living downwind of a pulp mill would leave the area quickly. For them the equation is much simpler; things that smell revolting- or taste very bad- are not healthy for you; they're toxic. That's why your body is telling you to leave it alone. The human primate though, for short gain, will listen to anybody with a fat wallet who assures them that, nah, that bad smell is not harmful at all, it just smells bad.

A properly designed species (I'm being humorous) would obviously always take the long view- the most benefits are there, always. But ours, with a really huge "thinking" apparatus, is not able to make that kind of a decision the default.

I think our thinker was ill thought out.

... Cape Wind, the controversial wind farm held up by NIMBYism ...

A minor correction is called for here: the windmill farm between Cape Cod and Nantucket Island was not blocked by Not-In-My-Back-Yardism, but by Not-In-Ted-Kennedy's-Back-Yardism.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 04 May 2010 #permalink

Henry, I actually don't say what I think about offshore drilling in this post - you are assuming you know what I think.

Pierce, no, I'm from Massachusetts, have family on the Cape and I wish that was all it was. Hostility to Cape Wind crosses political barriers -people who wouldn't have been caught dead voting for Kennedy agreed with him. Cape Wind suffered from NIMBYism in a place where many people not just the Kennedy family, are rich enough to have an enormous influence. There's plenty of blame for this to rest on Ted K's coffin, but he isn't the only driving force here by any means.


But wasn't it Kennedy's influence which (up until last year) made the difference in keeping the windmills back in flyover country? Without Teddy, all the rest of Hyannis(port) together couldn't stop Cape Wind: he made all the difference.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 05 May 2010 #permalink

The K's were critical, of course, but as I understand it, had it come entirely from Ted and his clan, there would have been major oppositional political hay made. But the reality is that basically all the rich people assholes in the northeast summer on the cape ;-), at least the ones who don't go to the Hamptons. The reason this wasn't "lefty Ted throws the environmentalists overboard" was that the right wing hates the idea too.