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Be Prepared for a Lot More Eco-Disasters: We're Entering the Age of 'Tough Oil'

Make no mistake: we’re entering the danger zone. And brace yourself, the fate of the planet could be at stake.
 
 
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Yes, the oil spewing up from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in staggering quantities could prove one of the great ecological disasters of human history.  Think of it, though, as just the prelude to the Age of Tough Oil, a time of ever increasing reliance on problematic, hard-to-reach energy sources.  Make no mistake: we’re entering the danger zone.  And brace yourself, the fate of the planet could be at stake.

It may never be possible to pin down the precise cause of the massive explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20th, killing 11 of its 126 workers.  Possible culprits include a faulty cement plug in the undersea oil bore and a disabled cutoff device known as a blow-out preventer.  Inadequate governmental oversight of safety procedures undoubtedly also contributed to the disaster, which may have been set off by a combination of defective equipment and human error.  But whether or not the immediate trigger of the explosion is ever fully determined, there can be no mistaking the underlying cause: a government-backed corporate drive to exploit oil and natural gas reserves in extreme environments under increasingly hazardous operating conditions.

The New Oil Rush and Its Dangers

The United States entered the hydrocarbon era with one of the world’s largest pools of oil and natural gas.  The exploitation of these valuable and versatile commodities has long contributed to the nation’s wealth and power, as well as to the profitability of giant energy firms like BP and Exxon.  In the process, however, most of our easily accessible onshore oil and gas reservoirs have been depleted, leaving only less accessible reserves in offshore areas, Alaska, and the melting Arctic.  To ensure a continued supply of hydrocarbons -- and the continued prosperity of the giant energy companies -- successive administrations have promoted the exploitation of these extreme energy options with a striking disregard for the resulting dangers.  By their very nature, such efforts involve an ever increasing risk of human and environmental catastrophe -- something that has been far too little acknowledged.

The hunt for oil and gas has always entailed a certain amount of risk.  After all, most energy reserves are trapped deep below the Earth’s surface by overlying rock formations.  When punctured by oil drills, these are likely to erupt in an explosive release of hydrocarbons, the well-known “gusher” effect.  In the swashbuckling early days of the oil industry, this phenomenon -- familiar to us from movies like There Will Be Blood -- often caused human and environmental injury.  Over the years, however, the oil companies became far more adept at anticipating such events and preventing harm to workers or the surrounding countryside. 

Now, in the rush to develop hard-to-reach reserves in Alaska, the Arctic, and deep-offshore waters, we’re returning to a particularly dangerous version of those swashbuckling days.  As energy companies encounter fresh and unexpected hazards, their existing technologies -- largely developed in more benign environments -- often prove incapable of responding adequately to the new challenges.  And when disasters occur, as is increasingly likely, the resulting environmental damage is sure to prove exponentially more devastating than anything experienced in the industrial annals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Deepwater Horizon operation was characteristic of this trend.  BP, the company which leased the rig and was overseeing the drilling effort, has for some years been in a rush to extract oil from ever greater depths in the Gulf of Mexico.  The well in question, known as Mississippi Canyon 252, was located in 5,000 feet of water, some 50 miles south of the Louisiana coastline; the well bore itself extended another 13,000 feet into the earth.  At depths this great, all work on the ocean floor has to be performed by remotely-controlled robotic devices overseen by technicians on the rig.  There was little margin for error to begin with, and no tolerance for the corner-cutting, penny-pinching, and lax oversight that appears to have characterized the Deepwater Horizon operation.  Once predictable problems did arise, it was, of course, impossible to send human troubleshooters one mile beneath the ocean’s surface to assess the situation and devise a solution.