The Return of Limits: What the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Really Means

What’s the real meaning of the Deepwater Horizon disaster?  I keep returning to this topic because it reveals so much about the state of contemporary U.S. civilization (although, to echo Gandhi, U.S. civilization would be a nice thing).  But I don’t feel that I’ve really gotten to the bottom of the issue.

I mean, why the hell was BP drilling a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico anyway?  And why was the U.S. government permitting this?

The obvious context, one that never gets mentioned as far as I can tell in mainstream media coverage, is the increasing inaccessibility of oil.  After all, these dubious drilling technologies would not be necessary if one just had to stick a pipe down into the soil of, say, Texas or California.  No, most of the easily accessible oil is now controlled by national oil companies such as Saudi Aramco and Petróleos de Venezuela.  Big private companies like BP, Shell, Exxon, and Chevron are now forced to search for oil in increasingly difficult and dangerous places.  This is why the Deepwater Horizon tragedy happened.

And things are not going to get any better.  In an article published last summer, with the ominous title “It’s Official – the Era of Cheap Oil is Over,” political scientist Michael T. Klare documented the latest report published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (IEA), the International Energy Outlook (IEO).  This report is the gold standard in terms of assessments of global energy supplies.

Guess what the 2009 IEO report predicted?: a sharp drop in projected future world oil output and a corresponding increase in reliance on so-called unconventional fuels – oil sands, shale oil, biofuels, and, you guessed it, ultra-deep soil.

The costs of exploiting such unconventional fuels are now clear to see in the oil shoals which are fouling more and more of the Gulf of Mexico.  The gathering political firestorm is likely to make such operations increasingly difficult to carry out – at least one would hope so.  But where are we going to get the energy we need for our increasingly power-hungry culture?

The answer would seem to be a swift, government-leveraged transition to renewable energy forms.  Indeed, in previous pieces I’ve argued that this is precisely what the Gulf spill should help prompt, if anything positive can come out of such an environmental and economic catastrophe.

And yet it would be naive to assume that we can simply substitute wind, wave, and solar power for fossil fuels like coal and oil.  Searching for a Miracle, a report published recently by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization, argues that no combination of alternative energy systems can replace fossil fuels.  If fossil fuels and high-quality uranium ores are depleting rapidly, and unconventional sources such as oil shale, tar sands, and biofuels suffer from low or negative net energy gain (meaning that we have to put more energy into extracting them than they produce at the end of the day), alternative energy sources are no panacea either.  They do provide clean energy, but their supply is intermittent (the sun doesn’t always shine, after all, nor does the wind always blow), they are often located in remote places (how do we get power from the wind-swept Great Plains to cities on the two coasts in the U.S., for example?), and they simply don’t offer the scale necessary to run anything approaching 20th century industrial civilization.

So the inevitable upshot of this analysis is that business as usual is no longer possible.  The mantra of growth which mainstream economists and politicians recite like zombies is totally untenable.  We need to prepare societies for a dramatic shift in consumption patterns and lifestyle expectations.  This could be a very positive transition given the level of alienation and exploitation (not to mention increasingly strident racism) that characterizes globalized neoliberal capitalism.  But it could also provoke vertiginously increased forms of xenophobia, political backlash, and incipient fascism.

The sooner we begin preparing for this great transition, the more likely we are to weather it without political chaos setting in.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Return of Limits: What the Deepwater Horizon Disaster Really Means

  1. The Destructionist

    As the oil spill in the Gulf grows larger and more deadly, decimating all that it touches, BP continues to turn down assistance from Americans who just want to help clean up the mess. (…I hear they even turned down Director James Cameron and actor Kevin Costner…)

    First let’s get one thing perfectly straight: If you want to go and help clean up the oil spill, don’t let some corporate Big-Whigs “handle” you into believing that you’d be more of a liability, than an asset. I applaud you for recognizing that we all depend on our oceans for our very survival. It is this water that sustains every living thing on our planet, and it is also this water that we must protect in order to save ourselves from extinction.

    BP has downplayed the problem in the Gulf from the beginning as a means of corporate damage control. I don’t think they’ve yet recognized the severity of the problem. As I’ve written in past blog posts; the pipe needs to be capped and the relief well needs to be drilled. It’s not an exact science by any means, and if BP doesn’t get it right the first time, they’ll have to do it over, and over, and over again, until they do. How many months (or years) will that take? How much damage will have been done to our environment by then? We’ve already seen what 51 days of oil can do to the Gulf of Mexico… What would happen if the oil was left, unabated, for several months, or years? It’s a frightening example of corporate greed gone awry and it’s criminal, pure and simple.

    Corporations should never be allowed the opportunity to risk the lives of everyone on the planet just to make a profit for a few shareholders. (What good is money, after all, if you don’t have air to breathe, water to drink, or food to eat without fear of contamination?)

    BREAKING NEWS: I’ve just heard that those enormous plumes floating just under the surface of the water have been certified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (N.O.A.A.) as crude oil.

    (Are we just casual witnesses to our own demise? I wonder…)

    (email me)

    • Have you heard about the deepwater drilling rig called the Atlantis? It’s just as dodgy in terms of safety, and it’s in every deeper waters than the Horizon. This from a recent article in Rolling Stone:

      Even worse, the “moratorium” on drilling announced by the president does little to prevent future disasters. The ban halts exploratory drilling at only 33 deepwater operations, shutting down less than one percent of the total wells in the Gulf. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the Cabinet-level official appointed by Obama to rein in the oil industry, boasts that “the moratorium is not a moratorium that will affect production” – which continues at 5,106 wells in the Gulf, including 591 in deep water.

      Most troubling of all, the government has allowed BP to continue deep-sea production at its Atlantis rig – one of the world’s largest oil platforms. Capable of drawing 200,000 barrels a day from the seafloor, Atlantis is located only 150 miles off the coast of Louisiana, in waters nearly 2,000 feet deeper than BP drilled at Deepwater Horizon. According to congressional documents, the platform lacks required engineering certification for as much as 90 percent of its subsea components – a flaw that internal BP documents reveal could lead to “catastrophic” errors. In a May 19th letter to Salazar, 26 congressmen called for the rig to be shut down immediately. “We are very concerned,” they wrote, “that the tragedy at Deepwater Horizon could foreshadow an accident at BP Atlantis.”

      The administration’s response to the looming threat? According to an e-mail to a congressional aide from a staff member at MMS, the agency has had “zero contact” with Atlantis about its safety risks since the Deepwater rig went down.

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