An Earth Day we won’t forget

On Earth Day two years ago today a tragedy began as a consequence of a number of factors that led up to the loss of control of the Deepwater Horizon “semi-submersible,” dynamically-positioned oil drilling platform.

As the disaster unfolded it would take the lives of eleven oil workers, but also eventually the lives of hundreds of marine mammals, and countless birds, fish, turtles, and marine invertebrates.

The first weeks of the disaster were pretty confusing. The Oilmen didn’t want a lot of fanfare, so aside from the spectacular scale of the rig fire, once it sank they underplayed the magnitude of the spill volume (as it turned out by more than a factor of 10).

Macondo/Deepwater Horizon spill

Macondo/Deepwater Horizon spill

Two weeks later the well was still out of control while I was attending the annual Offshore Technologies Conference (OTC) in Houston. This Texas-sized conference hosted 90,000 people over four days. Everyone at the conference was somehow involved in the offshore fossil fuel industry. Everyone there was sort-of staring at their feet about it. I heard it mentioned about three times during my visit, rather sheepishly.

The word out on the press at that time was that it wasn’t “1000 barrels a day,” it was more like “5000.” This was perhaps one reason people at the OTC were so quite about it; they knew the public estimate was really low. With a wellhead pressure of 13,000 psi, and the volume of hydrocarbons that the site promised, it was going to be much higher.

The sense I got was like they were watching mom scold their brother for playing with matches, and were waiting quietly to see what would happen when she found out the barn had burned down…

Macondo/Deepwater Horizon well head

Macondo/Deepwater Horizon well head

With all of the oil being spilled and chemical dispersants being applied, thinking about the noise sort-of pales. But if you imagine a huge flume of oil, gas, sand, and brine blasting out of a ripped-open pipe at 13,000 psi, noise would be part of the scenario.

Adding to that a sinking thruster-stabilized rig, a dozen high-pressure fire pumpers, dozens of other support craft all with their equipment and propellers, and the various acoustically controlled robotic vessels, the surrounding area was acoustically toxic as well (something that the oil folks are also sheepishly quiet about).

There continues to be a “sweep it under the rug” quality about how the Oilmen, our legislators, and even regulators are treating the largest US oil disaster in history. This may have to do with the hundreds of millions of oil dollars that are shoving their way around our democracy these days. (The boy with the matches has picked up a flame thrower…)

We should remember on this Earth Day the conditions that brought the original Earth Day about – Love Canal, the burning Cuyahoga River, the Stringfellow Acid Pits – finally pushed the public into being fed up with the way unregulated industry was poisoning our air, trashing our water, killing our kids, and despoiling our environment with impunity.

We should also remember on this Earth Day that our high quality of life does not come cheap. Disasters like the Macondo/Deepwater Horizon are the collateral costs, and unless we figure out how to use less energy, the costs will continue to mount.