American Chernobyl, Coast Guard photo. The well beneath it is leaking over a
million gallons a day into the Gulf. An attempt to cap it has failed, there is a
plan to try to pump garbage and concrete into the well.
Those readers who watch television have since April 20th seen over and over the images of a massive off shore oil drilling rig burn with brilliant flame and roiling black smoke against which fire boats were useless and some have seen the platform slip beneath the waves and sink in a mile of water. The unit, Deepwater Horizon, is a mobile oil drilling rig designed to work in water a mile and a half deep, and drill to depths of 35,000 feet; indeed, it holds the record for the deepest well at that depth.
To put things in perspective, you could park the unit at the 49/89 junction above Sattley and pretty much drill to Sierraville.
The Deepwater Horizon is essentially a ship a hundred and thirty yards long and almost a hundred yards wide with several decks (the unit is semi-submersible), conning towers and a helipad. It would typically drill a well and place a cap, over which a less versatile and expensive platform would pump the oil.
According to reports, a bubble of methane gas exploded beneath the unit with significant loss of life; 11 are missing and presumed dead and 17 are seriously injured.
The real news, though, is not the loss of the $350 million dollar vessel, it’s the uncapped oil well which is pouring up to a million gallons of crude oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. The loss of livelihood and wildlife is going to be incalculable.
What’s the story here? The story is that the spill is being called "America’s Chernobyl."
Chernobyl, we recall, was the nuclear accident which set loose a cloud of radioactive gas which contaminated sections of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine, in addition to effecting children as far as Finland. Though the cancer and birth defect rates have been less than feared, the incident had consequences that were far reaching in time, geographically, socially and politically.
Chernobyl: People still work there, for 2 minutes a day,
for monthly wages which are 5 times the average. It’s easy work
but you die of cancer. Life is full of trade-offs.
That the Gulf Spill might be that kind of event for the U.S. is the greatest fear of those in the petroleum based economy, and the hope of those in the green economy.
The real story is that it is insane to drill from Calpine to Sierraville in search of Oil. We turn this oil into carbon pollutants which, even if there were no global warming, would continue to cause problems for the environment and all those who breathe air. Clearly, our addiction to oil has driven us to extreme measures.
Is this not nuts, to drill into the sea to a depth equal to the distance from
Calpine to Sierraville, not once but over and over across the ocean floor, in search of oil?
The oil spill is spectacular, but it only highlights the problem. There has been a "slow motion" oil spill for decades where bunker fuel and crude from tankers and from leaking and improperly capped wells have been leaking into the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These seeps are somewhat diluted by wave action, but tend to come together to make tar balls of salted petroleum, and vary in size from pea sized to globs 10 feet in diameter. Many sink to the bottom, but often the tar balls float to beaches; the Mediterranean Sea is being damaged by tar balls.
Because the economy is so bad, and because replacing oil with more sustainable and renewable technologies is scary and expensive, we as a society have been tempted to continue resource exploitation which is unwise.
For those of us in Sierra County, who rely on "cheap" petroleum products to bring us goods, take us to work and take our products to market, the end of off shore drilling should be a very scary idea. Most really inevitable things, like death and government intervention, are scary. Giving up an addiction is very, very scary.
Isn’t that what our national behavior over oil is like, the acts of an addict? What does an addict do? He goes to great lengths and does risky things to get his junk; he steals and cheats. Shall we talk about our recent behavior in the Middle East? The people of the Amazon are being pushed out of their homes in the pursuit of minerals and oil; are we about to intercede there? We didn’t actually send our posse in to Iraq to off the gang leader there and install our own gang leader who would ensure oil? What is drilling through a mile of deep ocean and six miles of the earth’s core to send a slender pipe into the ground if not the actions of an addict?
The key idea of "Chernobyl" is that it brought about a worldwide awareness of the dangers of the "free" energy of nuclear piles. Much of the world pulled back from having nuclear plants (not France, who is even more dependent on foreign energy than the U.S.).
The American Chernobyl will spoil beaches on the Gulf Coast for decades. These aren’t the beaches of the Exxon Valdez, peopled by a few thousand Native Americans and fishermen who can be bought off with jobs to replace their lost industries, these are populated coasts who rely on fishing and tourism.
There is no easy road to independence from oil, no cheap way to change from energy dense petroleum to energy fluffy renewables, just as there is no easy road back from any addiction, or effortless means to any success.
The Deepwater Horizon cost $350 million. It is one of many such vessels, and there are thousands of active and inactive wells just in the Gulf Coast. If we as a society made a similar investment in green energy, we’d be on the road to recovery.
We need to prepare ourselves for the end of oil, the start of shopping locally, buying local food, learning to work on the internet, to reuse, reduce, recycle. We can't continue the addict's life.
What we can do: We could be nearly energy independent in Sierra County… if we had no start up costs. Many a rancher could be successful under the same conditions.
We have enough biomass in the county to serve all of our energy needs, and a good bit of solar, too. The problem is, biomass and solar energy are "energy fluffy" meaning the amount of energy you get from the dollar you invest is much lower than oil or coal. In our case, the biomass has to be harvested, munched, taken to the cogen or gassification plant and converted. Currently, there just isn’t the infrastructure available, even if you have the cash.
But, we can support an energy industry that spends millions on infrastructure; we need to divert some of our oil dollars to take care of our local energy network.