How soon we forget. Today marks the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But don’t expect to hear much about it.
The largest environmental disaster ever in American history, the BP oil spill dumped nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its consequences continue to reverberate in the area. But unless you’re a Louisiana shrimper or a fan of dolphins — more than 700 have washed up on Gulf shores since the spill — does it really matter two years out?
Even if you’re indifferent to the magnitude of human and animal suffering as Gulf communities continue to try to clean up 450 miles of fouled coastline, there are two big lessons to take from the spill and its aftermath.
First, when it comes to things that matter in America, our memories are far too short. We are far too easily distracted by the latest pop culture fad, buffoonish presidential candidate or murder trial in the media.
Just the same way we forgot about Fukushima as quickly as we could to let President Obama start ushering in a “nuclear renaissance.”
But even worse, that we’ve forgotten the Deepwater Horizon shows that Americans are dumber than spit when it comes to one of the most important issues to our current prosperity and our future survival as a civilization and perhaps, a species.
Specifically, oil depletion since peak oil hit in 2006. There’s no reason that BP would’ve been drilling more than a mile under the ocean’s surface if there was any easy-to-find oil left. Fact is, the days of handy on-shore gushers are gone. Now, it’s all about deep water oil, Arctic oil, tar sands, oil shale, oil from fracking and other “unconventional” sources of crude.
The returns on that kind of oil are nothing like back in the day, when crude from West Texas could give a hundred barrels for every barrel of oil you’d have to spend on drilling or one barrel of oil would give you 30 barrels of Saudi crude. In our era of what Naomi Klein has dubbed “extreme energy,” oil can deliver energy returns as low as 10:1 or below.
And very smart people, including net energy specialist Charles Hall, think we can’t run global industrial civilization on energy returns that low for very long.
Not to mention all the earth you have to move to mine tar sands, all the water you have to use to frack or all the risk you have to take to drill under the Arctic ice or under a mile of ocean in the Gulf.
That’s not the story we’re hearing in the media these days, which is all aflutter with images of the U.S. as a new exporter of oil.
But as the old saying has it, if it sounds too good to be true…
Of course, for anybody who cares about climate change, what sounds good to the oil industry sounds like disaster for carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Thus the fracas that 350.org and other green groups made about the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project which won’t seem to die no matter how many times it’s killed.
So, as America gladly succumbs to a drill-baby-drill fever that may burn for only a few years, let’s hope we don’t waste too much money on infrastructure for oil that geology tells us will soon start to run low. For the climate’s sake, let’s hope that oil does run low pretty soon. And for the sake of our economy, let’s hope we start ramping up conservation and clean energy on a war footing even sooner.
I know that’s an awful lot to hope for. But the alternative — extending the fossil fuel era into an artificial boom for another decade or two before reserves really start to run low, but long enough to produce many more Deepwater Horizons — is too horrible to imagine.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice