Tag Archives: Deepwater Horizon

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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Filed under environment

The difference a month makes

It’s been one month since BP’s Deepwater Horizon sank.  The levels of human incompetence and political corruption that have been revealed are breathtaking. Most prominently, the role of the federal Minerals’ Management Service as pimp for the oil industry has been stripped bare for all to see.

Of course the full impact of this disaster is unclear, largely because BP will not allow scientists to calculate how much oil is being released each day and because the government will not force them to reveal this information.  This is another aspect of this tragedy that has illuminated the dark, dark corners of our polity: the U.S. government is utterly dependent on a corporation it is supposed to be regulating to fix this life and land threatening disaster.

With our consequent lack of knowledge about actually how much the ocean is being polluted in mind, it’s worth looking at the live video feed of the oil gushing out of the damaging equipment 5,000 feet below the surface of the sea.  It’s quite literally an infernal image.  Check it out here.

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Filed under environment, Uncategorized