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Four Possible BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come

The disaster in the Gulf is no anomaly. It's an arrow pointing toward future disasters.
 
 
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On June 15 th, in their testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the chief executives of America’s leading oil companies argued that BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was an aberration -- something that would not have occurred with proper corporate oversight and will not happen again once proper safeguards are put in place.  This is fallacious, if not an outright lie.  The Deep Horizon explosion was the inevitable result of a relentless effort to extract oil from ever deeper and more hazardous locations.  In fact, as long as the industry continues its relentless, reckless pursuit of “extreme energy” -- oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium obtained from geologically, environmentally, and politically unsafe areas -- more such calamities are destined to occur.

At the onset of the modern industrial era, basic fuels were easy to obtain from large, near-at-hand energy deposits in relatively safe and friendly locations.  The rise of the automobile and the spread of suburbia, for example, were made possible by the availability of cheap and abundant oil from large reservoirs in California, Texas, and Oklahoma, and from the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  But these and equivalent deposits of coal, gas, and uranium have been depleted.  This means the survival of our energy-centric civilization increasingly relies on supplies obtained from risky locations -- deep underground, far at sea, north of the Arctic circle, in complex geological formations, or in unsafe political environments.  That guarantees the equivalent of two, three, four, or more Gulf-oil-spill-style disasters in our energy future.

Back in 2005, the CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, put the situation about as bluntly as an oil executive could. “One thing is clear,” he said, “the era of easy oil is over.  Demand is soaring like never before… At the same time, many of the world’s oil and gas fields are maturing.  And new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.”

O’Reilly promised then that his firm, like the other energy giants, would do whatever it took to secure this “difficult energy” to satisfy rising global demand.  And he proved a man of his word.  As a result, BP, Chevron, Exxon, and the rest of the energy giants launched a drive to obtain traditional fuels from hazardous locations, setting the stage for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and those sure to follow.  As long as the industry stays on this course, rather than undertaking the transition to an alternative energy future, more such catastrophes are inevitable, no matter how sophisticated the technology or scrupulous the oversight.

The only question is:  What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)?  The choices are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities.  None of these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.

Scenario 1: Newfoundland -- Hibernia Platform Destroyed by Iceberg

Approximately 190 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in what locals call “Iceberg Alley” sits the Hibernia oil platform, the world’s largest offshore drilling facility.  Built at a cost of some $5 billion, Hibernia consists of a 37,000-ton “topsides” facility mounted on a 600,000-ton steel-and-concrete gravity base structure (GBS) resting on the ocean floor, some 260 feet below the surface.  This mammoth facility, normally manned by 185 crew members, produces about 135,000 barrels of oil per day.  Four companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, Murphy Oil, and Statoil) plus the government of Canada participate in the joint venture established to operate the platform.

 
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