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Lather. Rinse. Repeat? May 5, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, environment.
Tags: , ,

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was and will continue to be a disaster. There are no two ways about it. 11 oil workers died. Cleaning up will cost between two and eight billion dollars. Much of the damage that has already done and will continue to be done—stopping the leak will require drilling sideways into the existing well to divert the flow and this will take at least a month—will not be reversed for many years. If ever. Gulf coast communities, human and otherwise, will suffer physically. The Human ones will suffer financially too. BP will bear the bulk of the direct cleanup cost. Fine. It remains to be seen how much of the indirect cost falls on BP. The cynic/realist in me thinks little. Gulf coast residents will bear most. The taxpayers will cover the difference. Don’t worry, it won’t be much compared to the 182,000,000,000 we gave AIG.

As important as the immediate physical and financial effects of the spill, perhaps the more important effects are the political ones, specifically those on future energy policy. Already, several states have placed moratoriums on offshore drilling. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it’s for the good. However, the other side of that coin is that expanded offshore drilling was presumably to be a (the?) major concession to the right in what I only hope will be an aggressive climate and energy bill. Without offshore drilling to allay their fears about “increased consumer energy costs” (translation: jobs for their states), what new, potentially worse, concession will be required to bring conservative Senators from coastal states aboard?

Here’s what should bring them aboard. The BP oil spill was an accident. But it’s the kind of accident that will probably start happening with greater frequency. Drilling for oil is expensive and there is already talk that BP was taking some shortcuts with its equipment, most infamously by failing to include an acoustic shutoff valve. Is BP the only company taking these shortcuts? On NPR’s Radio Times yesterday, Lisa Margonelli said that the Niger delta—where drilling regulations are more lax—experiences the equivalent of the BP accident every year! The BP accident took place at a well that was gently described as “technically challenging”—the oil is more than three miles below the ocean floor which itself is a mile below the ocean surface and ther rig. Are future drilling sites likely to be more or less technically challenging? Logic dictates that companies explore less challenging locations first and so future drilling is likely to be as challenging if not more so. And finally, are ocean conditions going to be generally less violent and more conducive to drilling or vice versa? Ironically, in part because of drilling, conditions are likely to get worse.

One argument that is strangely dormant in the fossil vs. renewable fuel debate is the increasing risk of disaster associated with extracting fossil fuel. Perhaps this isn’t talked about because the risk is still very low—despite the fact that we have had a both a deadly mine explosion and a deadly oil rig explosion in less than a month, mine and rig explosions are still the exception—and risks that low are seen as “the cost of doing business.” But the costs of fossil fuel disasters, especially oil disasters, are incredibly high. And a low, but non-zero, risk of a disaster with an incredibly high cost is not only a non-negligible average cost, it’s essentially a guarantee that eventually we will experience this disaster and its cost. Yes, wind is expensive and made more so by its own unpredictable nature. But as the BP incident shows, oil can get unpredictable and expensive too. Is any wind farm going to be eight billion dollars expensive? Is any wind farm going to be 11 lives expensive? And yes offshore wind farms kill birds and “ruin” beach vistas, but will any wind farm kill as many birds and ruin as many beach vistas as this accident?

If anything, to me, a spill like this underscores the fact that we need to switch to renewables as quickly as possible. Not only to avoid the chronic and inexorable disaster that is climate change but also to avoid the accidental and acute disasters that are BP. If we don’t, it’s going to be lather, rinse, repeat. Literally.

P.S. God love her, Mrs. Bluejay buys me many books. Almost as many as I buy myself. If you ever feel compelled or obligated to buy me a gift, a good non-fiction book is a safe bet. I am especially partial to social commentary and scientific thought. If you are not sure which social commentary or scientific thought book to get me, just get me an Amazon gift certificate. Or a Kindle. Anyways, one of the best books the Mrs. has gotten me is “What Should I Do With My Life?” by Po Bronson. If you’ve ever asked yourself this question—and let he who has the free hand cast the first stone—you will find this book quite … emotionally liberating.

P.P.S. I know that “let he who has the free hand cast the first stone” is not the appropriate adage there. But I like it and I try to use it wherever it even remotely fits.



1. eema - May 6, 2010

I read his book, following an interview on NPR. I remember loving it, but now I can’t remember why 😦 I guess it’s time for me to re-read it.

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