What would Gaylord do? An essay on the environmental movement and the Deepwater Horizon disaster
On March 31, 2010, President Obama lifted the offshore drilling moratorium on the Atlantic coast and Northern Alaska (offshore drilling is still not allowed on the West Coast). Less than one month later, on April 20, BP’s offshore rig, the Deepwater Horizon (leased from Transocean), suffered a blowout and explosion. Eleven workers were tragically killed, and the platform eventually sank leaving an uncapped well which continues to flow at a rate of roughly 200,000 gallons per day.
As of today (May 3), under the ‘best case’ scenario we will not see the flow of oil capped for at least another week. Already, more than 6,800 square miles of federal fishing areas have been closed, and the fishing ban will likely expand. But the giant and growing oil slick is not just a short term threat to fishermen. The slick threatens the Gulf’s ‘fertile crescent’ – the rich marine estuaries fed by a constant flow of nutrients from the Mississippi and Mobile Rivers. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the Gulf’s seafood is sustained by these estuaries, and unfortunately Dr. George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, explains that the “productive system is at risk and no one really knows how it will respond to the oil. We could be about to watch something happen, that’s completely man-made, that the natural system hasn’t ever seen before.” (source)
In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Flashback to Santa Barbara, California, January 28, 1969.
On that day, an offshore UNOCAL platform located just six miles from the Santa Barbara coast suffered a similar blowout which took workers eleven and a half days to cap. During this time, an estimated 200,000 gallons of crude created an oil slick which covered 800 square miles and marred 35 miles of California coastline.
As Keith Clarke and Jefferey Hemphill (UCSB Geography Dept.) explain in “The Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A Retrospective”:
“Animals that depended on the sea were hard hit. Incoming tides brought the corpses of dead seals and dolphins. Oil had clogged the blowholes of the dolphins, causing massive lung hemorrhages. Animals that ingested the oil were poisoned. In the months that followed, gray whales migrating to their calving and breeding grounds in Baja California avoided the channel —their main route south. The oil took its toll on the seabird population. Shorebirds like plovers, godwits and willets which feed on sand creatures fled the area. But diving birds which must get their nourishment from the waters themselves became soaked with tar.”
Enraged by the environmental destruction brought by the Santa Barbara oil spill, activists gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition to ban offshore drilling, and this event is widely cited as the inspiration for the recently lifted offshore drilling moratorium.
In addition to inspiring the drilling moratorium, the Santa Barbara oil spill catalyzed a fledgling environmental movement. The environmental movement was further galvanized just six months after the Santa Barbara catastrophe, when on June 22, 1969 the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland, Ohio burst into flames.
The Cuyahoga’s flames were fed by toxic sludge which was legally dumped into the river by a variety of Cleveland’s heavy industry players, including Cleveland’s refineries and steel industry. The oily sludge-filled river was described by Time magazine as “chocolate-brown, oily, [and] bubbling with subsurface gases.” So thick was this sludge, it was said that the Cuyahoga “oozes rather than flows” (The Price of Optimism – August 1969).
Of course, this was not the first time that the Cuyahoga caught on fire. In fact, Ohio History Central reports that the Cuyahoga caught on fire at least ten times since 1868. While the fire of 1969 was not the longest burning, nor the most deadly, nor the most costly, the 1969 Cuyahoga blaze inspired Cleveland’s recently elected Mayor Carl Stokes (pictured below) to aggressively push for environmental legislation and clean-up money. His brave environmental stewardship further invigorated the environmental movement.
Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, brainchild of the first Earth Day in 1970 was similarly inspired to action by the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga blaze. In Beyond Earth Day (2002), Sen. Nelson wrote that “in June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River — slick with oil and grease and littered with debris — caught fire and shot flames high into the air in Cleveland… That image, widely circulated in the popular press, burned its way into the nation’s collective memory as the poster child for environmental atrocities of the time.”
Last Thursday, while the Deepwater Horizon burned out of control, we (well at least some of us) celebrated Earth Day’s 40th birthday. With one hand we patted ourselves on the back for the great strides we’ve taken toward improving our relationship with the environment. With the other hand clinched in a fist, we raised it to the sky in an act of defiance and solidarity against climate change gridlock and other environmental woes.
Forty years have passed since the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River fire, and I can’t help but question whether we should be patting ourselves on the back at all. On its face, the Cuyahoga appears to be clean, but the Cuyahoga’s waters are far from pristine. Forty years later some fish have returned, but only “pollution-tolerant species like carp, suckers and bottom feeders, and, unfortunately, they have tumors, eroded fins, deformities and lesions.” (source)
While forty years of incremental recovery have allowed the Cuyahoga to show signs of recuperation, the biodynamic diversity of the ecosystem is only a glimmer of what it once was. In the meantime, environmental regulation has not progressed. In fact it has slipped.
Lack of regulation and a lack of enforcement of regulation allows energy industries to threaten water supplies and aquatic ecosystems which directly and indirectly support terrestrial life (including our own). The Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency were important early environmental victories. But where has policy gone in the last few decades? I would argue that in far too many cases environmental regulation has stalled or even reversed. Let’s take a look at just a few of the man-made environmental catastrophes that have occurred as a result of stalled environmental regulation.
As I’ve written in previous posts (Shale Gas is a Giant Loser and Shale Gas Overhyped says Petroleum Industry Analyst Henry Groppe), the production of conventional natural gas has reached the seventh fold – increasing production has quickly progressed from being relatively easy to impossible. As a consequence the natural gas industry has rapidly ramped up the production of unconventional shale gas plays. In order to extract natural gas from shale, an impermeable source rock, the shale must first be fractured. The shale is fractured through hydrofracing, a process in which water laced with biocides and other toxic chemicals is injected under high pressure into the ground.
Once the shale is fractured, the stranded natural gas is released and brought to the surface. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, some of the toxic chemicals, biocides, and even methane itself have leeched into freshwater aquifers. Furthermore, there is at least one case where the wastewater generated through the hydrofracing process has been illegally dumped into freshwater wells (link).
Why have we not aggressively regulated unconventional shale gas production?
In recognition of the the U.S.‘s growing seventh fold energy problems, the federal government passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005. This piece of of legislation specifically exempts hydrofracing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Regulation of the coal industry has been similarly lax. Of course there is the ongoing investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine Explosion which killed 29. Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy had been cited for federal safety infractions 57 times in March alone for (among other things) repeatedly failing to upgrade the ventilation system which proved to be the cause of the deadly explosion (more details here). Here we have a case of regulation without teeth.
While I’m on the subject of coal, regulation, and Massey Energy in particular, I should also note that Massey Energy is currently being sued by Harman Mining who “had accused Massey of running it out of business by defaulting on contracts and committing fraud. Harman won a $50 million verdict in trial court, but the case was appealed to the West Virginia State Supreme Court. Shortly after the initial verdict against Massey, their CEO helped to raise the $3.5 million for an advertising campaign that led to the defeat of one of the Supreme Court justices” (source). That’s right, the same CEO (Don Blankenship) that told a cameraman “If you’re going to start taking pictures of me, you’re liable to get shot” (video), raised $3.5 million to elect the judge that overturned a $50 million settlement against his operation. And this is the same CEO that was awarded $2 million in safety bonuses in 2009 “even as mines amassed record violations“… the CEO that was in charge when 29 miners were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion! It’s enough to make your head twirl!
As long as I’m talking about coal accidents, regulation, and ecosystem health, let us not forget the Tennessee coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant. On December 22, 2008, the northern section of a tailings pond dyke ruptured flooding nearby towns and the Emory and Clinch Rivers with a torrent of coal fly ash. The amount of fly ash sludge was originally estimated at 1.7 million cubic yards and even at that level officials were claiming that it was the “largest environmental disaster of its kind in the United States” (link). This estimate was later increased to 5.4 million cubic yards of debris.
But the unreasonably bad estimates don’t stop there. Initially, the EPA estimated that clean-up would take four to six weeks. After six months had passed, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported that, “So far, only 176,000 cubic yards of ash — or about 3 percent of all of the estimated 5.4 million cubic yards of ash that was spilled at Kingston — has been dredged from the Emory River and less than a third of that has been shipped offsite” (link).
Here’s the rub. “Though federal studies show that coal ash can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals and carcinogens, [Tennessee Valley] Authority officials have said that the ash is not harmful, and the Authority has not warned residents of potential dangers.” (link) In fact, despite containing heavy metals and other toxins, coal ash is not federally recognized or regulated as a hazardous material. As T.V.A. spokesperson Barbara Martocci put it, “You’re not going to be endangered by touching the ash material, you’d have to eat it. You have to get it in your body” (link). That’s comforting… but what about when it dries, turns to dust and is inhaled?
Meanwhile, in our quest to ‘secure’ energy resources, we have looked north to Canada where one of the greatest human-engineered environmental catastrophes has been unfolding at an accelerating rate in Canada’s boreal forest. It is there that bitumen (tar) is extracted from Athabasca’s vast tar sand deposits, upgraded, and eventually converted to synthetic crude.
The bitumen trapped in the tar-sand matrix has been described by Dr. Steven Kuznicki, of the Imperial Oil-Alberta Ingenuity Center for Oil Sands Innovation, as some of the “ugliest stuff you ever saw… contaminated, non-homogenous and ill-defined… Bitumen is five percent sulphur, half a percent nitrogen and 1,000 parts per million heavy metals. Its viscosity [stickiness is like tar on a a cold day. That’s ugly.” (source: Andrew Nikiforuk (2008) Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent)
The process of mining and upgrading is both incredibly energy intensive and water intensive. A popular method of separating the bitumen from the sand, involves super-heating water and shooting steam through the mined matrix. Nikiforuk reports that tar sands producers consume enough natural gas producing steam every day to heat four million homes. As a result, the EROEI is perhaps as low as 3-to-1. The steam both loosens the bitumen and provides hydrogen atoms which when introduced at high heat allow the extremely long chained bitumen hydrocarbons to be ‘cracked’ into shorter-chained hydrocarbons which can then be refined into useful fuels.
Through this process, upgraded synthetic crude is produced, but so too is an industrial sludge containing toxic phenols, heavy metals (such as arsenic), benzene, cyanide, and dozens of other known carcinogens.
The sludge which is produced is pumped into the enormous, earthen-walled tailings ponds much like the earthen-walled tailings pond which failed releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal fly ash in Tennessee. These raised (!) tailings ponds line the Athabasca River, and are so large that astronauts can see them from space.
So how much water are we talking about? “Of the twelve barrels of water needed to make one barrel of bitumen, approximately three barrels become mudlike tailings.” (Nikiforuk, p. 78) When you consider that well over a million barrels of synthetic crude are produced every day, you start to get an idea of the magnitude of the tailings problem.
These toxic tailings ponds, in fact, cover twenty-three square miles, and since tar sands production began, it has been estimated that enough toxic waste has been created to fill a 2,000 mile long canal 32 feet deep and 65 feet wide.
The problem, of course, is that the toxins leech into the water table, and directly into the Athabasca River. It has, in fact, been estimated (by the oil industry, no less) that more than a million gallons of toxin-laced water seeps through the earthen walls and into the Athabasca River every day!
Okay, so it is bad enough that these leaky tailings ponds even exist, but what if a levy failed? After all, they are essentially of the same design and materials as the Tennessee dyke that failed (only on a much, much larger scale). David Shindler at the University of Alberta puts it like this, “If any of those [tailings ponds] were ever to breach and discharge into the river, the world would forever forget about the Exxon Valdez.” In fact, the quantity of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (many of which are known carcinogens) held in tailings ponds represent about 3,000 Exxon Valdezes (Nikiforuk, p. 85). Yet, despite the potential for environmental catastrophe, Canada’s tar sands remain, shall we say, less than adequately regulated.
Back to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Thanks to timely investigative reporting we now we learn that BP in fact “spent years battling federal regulators over how many layers of safeguards would be needed to prevent a deepwater well from this type of accident” (source). This same article further asserts that “according to aides to Sen. Bill Nelson… who has followed offshore drilling issues for years, the industry aggressively lobbied against an additional layer of protection known as an “acoustic system,” saying it was too costly. In a March 2003 report, the federal agency that oversaw oil rig safety reversed course, and said that layer of protection was no longer needed.” It looks like lobbying scored another victory. Hooray for crony capitalism!
Meanwhile, the best idea we’ve had for mitigating the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill is to light it on fire. Yup, that’s right, forty years after the Cuyahoga blaze galvanized the environmental movement we have overturned the offshore drilling moratorium and turned to setting the Gulf of Mexico ablaze in order to mitigate the impacts of a giant oil spill!
In truth, the Deepwater Horizon disaster has the potential to rival or even far surpass the ecological and economic impacts of the Exxon Valdez, which brings me to another point. Conservative NYT columnist and author of Grand New Party, Ross Douthat recently argued on Bill Maher’s Real Time that the Deepwater Horizon disaster should not deter offshore drilling.
Douthat’s logic? If we don’t produce the oil we consume, we’ll have to import it. And if we import oil, we simply face a different risk: the risk of a tanker spill like the Exxon Valdez or the more recent Eagle Otome spill in Port Arthur, Texas (where on January 23, 2010, a barge collided with a tanker spilling 450,000 gallons of oil into a waterway near Port Arthur, Texas – video). BTW, I highly recommend everyone watch the documentary, Black Wave: The legacy of the Exxon Valdez.
Douthat, thus sets up a false choice set between tankers and offshore production. Through his argument, he channels the essence of Yogi Berra’s statement “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But are these really the only two choices that we have?
IF we choose to continue to consume, we have a choice of risks: tankers or offshore. But what if we simply choose to not consume so much energy – especially fossil fuel energy? I would rather follow the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
I have taken great pains to show the failures of regulation, and the deadly impacts of regulatory weakness. And I certainly believe that BP, Halliburton (who poured the cement for the Deepwater Horizon wellcasing that likely failed), Massey Energy, Exxon Mobil, Kingston Fossil, Suncor, Syncrude, and unnamed other energy companies are culpable for cutting corners and polluting the environment in the pursuit of profits. I also believe that regulators are culpable as well. But, as Pogo stated in the cartoon which was used for promotional literature for the first Earth Day event, “We’ve met the enemy, and he is us”.
In elementary school, I learned that every time you point your finger at someone else, three fingers point back at you. There is certainly enough guilt to be spread around. We can push and hope for effective legislation. We can wait for change to come from above and try to force it from below, but if the past 40 years of environmental history have taught me anything it is that “We learn from history that we never learn anything from history” (Hegel).
If there is a silver lining to this dark cloud, it’s that we don’t have to choose between another Exxon Valdez (or Eagle Otome) and another Deepwater Horizon. “We stand now where two roads diverge…. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one less traveled – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” (Rachel Carson).
With that said, I’d like to ask you all to join me and my family for a month of hydrocarbon abstinence! That’s right, my family is going on a hydrocarbon fast. We have made a pact to not drive a car (or get in one driven by someone else). And we’ve also made a pact to be vegans for a month, and to eat locally grown foods whenever possible (which in the Seattle area is surprisingly easy to do).
My sense is that we all have a choice. We can continue to consume products which are inherently risky to ecosystems, or we can choose not to. I choose the latter, and hope you will too (even if it is only abstinence one day a week)!
Thanks for reading. I look forward to the hydrocarbon fast, and will write an article summarizing my family’s experiences at the end of the month.