The Green Cheapies

Engulfed

Chad W. Lutz
“A man's conscience, like a warning line on the highway, tells him what he shouldn't do - but it does not keep him from doing it.”

-Frank Howard Clark (American Screenwriter 1888 – 1962)
After a decade where rising costs in oil began pushing America to look to alternative fuels as the answer to the energy crisis, it looked as though we were making headway. Even after overtly ignoring the problem for decades, for the first time ever legislation was being passed that focused on emissions from cars and stiffer penalties for not meeting EPA standards. “Eco-friendly” had become almost as household as the brand names that touted its guarantee. Corn-derived E85 Ethanol was made available at the pump for the first time and the Exxon Valdez was but a bitter memory, with only a few puddle traces left in the back of our minds.
There was an explosion.
And then it happened…
4/20; “eco-conscious” stoners who woke early that day to get a jump on the festivities were greeted with top of the hour news lines that read straight from a Stephen King novel. “11dead…others injured,” “thousands of gallons,” “estimated in the tens of thousands,” “OIL,” “leaking,” “pouring,” “gushing, into the Gulf.” This day, of all days, almost seems apropos of the irony.

And then the name BP finds its way onto the screen and we all feel a little violated. It’s easy to cope when you know that the tragedy you’re watching in the ticker fly across the bottom of your television screen is thousands of miles away with no names and no faces of sentiment attached. It’s another to look over your shoulder out your suburban city apartment window to find the culprit grinning wide in green and yellow in your very own back yard. Let the venom begin to sting.

On the morning of April 20th, 2010, BP and the associated press began confirming reports that one of their offshore, underwater oil wells had sprung a leak due to an explosion on the deck of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 people, injuring 17 others. It burned for 36 consecutive hours before it finally sank into the Gulf of Mexico. The rig and off shore reservoir, the Macondo Reservoir (estimated to hold up to 500 million barrels of oil) was located about 40 miles south of Louisiana, a state that’s already seen its share of ecological woes. Still recovering from Katrina, concerns instantly turned toward the Big Easy. Could this be another blunder on the bayou?
Louisiana Bayou after the spill (May 2010)
Before reaching its fireball fate on April 20th, Deepwater Horizon’s foundation broke ground in March of 2000. The ultra deep-sea drill was built, commissioned, and operated by the Transocean’s Triton Asset Leasing Corporation upon its completion in 2001 and was on lease to the BP Corporation through September 2013. The massive rig stood over 300ft. tall and ran a depth of almost 140ft. with enough capacity to house 146 crewmembers comfortably. Reports peg an estimated 126 crewmembers on board the day of the explosion.

As the first few days came and went, reports were scattered, skewed. Some put the estimate of oil lost in the hundreds of thousands of gallons a day. Others forecast fractions of that. By April 25th, the oil had already spanned 580 sq. mi. of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time it was believed that the well was spewing in an upwards of 62,000 barrels of oil out into the Gulf a day. Estimates aside, one thing was for certain and couldn’t be ignored: Oil, arguably one of the most valuable resources on the planet, the one they told me we were rapidly running out of since I was in the second grade. The one they used to make our toys, our dashboards, our living. A mere mixture of hydrocarbons that people have, are, and will probably continue to kill for for many, many years to come was now bleeding out into the sea right off our own shores.

At first it sounded like the plot to a highly predictable James Bond movie. Bad guy holds world ransom and it’s up to James to swoop in and stop the evil doer before he floods the worlds oceans with their own oil reserves (genius!). But once the truth had set in that this wasn’t an Albert R. Broccoli picture, and video started to surface of a real-life oilrig burning horribly out of control off the coast of Louisiana with crude billowing out into the Gulf of Mexico from an underwater pipeline like water over Niagara Falls, bleak found company in a nation.

A quiet panic began to rise as the “first few reports” of the projected magnitude of the situation turned into “the first few weeks.” It was subliminal at first, very subtle. People didn’t want to be too quick to call the end of the world. But there were those that were hot at the trigger and still are. At the time of the initial blast, there was the mentality that everything was under control, and that the proper authorities would be on the scene, much like the Valdez, and order would be restored before we knew it. Writing in what is now August (and probably everyone else reading this article) I never thought for a moment back then that I, and the rest of the world, would still be wondering when the leak would be fixed.

Having never encountered a scenario like this in its 101-year history, UK-found British Petroleum, whose headquarters is situated halfway around the world in the City of Westminster, London, BP was operating under an archaic response plan. As outlined in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which served as the Federal mandate for the response plan:

“Congress found that many people believe that complacency on the part of personnel responsible for monitoring the operation of the Valdez terminal and vessel traffic in Prince William Sound was a contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez oil spill and that there is a need for a mechanism which fosters the long-term partnership of industry, government, and local communities in overseeing environmental compliance in the operation of crude oil terminals”

That was in 1990, twenty years ago.

In its pages, the response plan outlines protocol and procedure to prevent and assess both catastrophic and small-scale spills. The rating scales they use to measure the density of the spills are based on “oil thickness.” The scale gradates from “Barely Visible (0.0000015 in. ‘thickness’ in 25 gals/mile^2),” to “Dark (0.00008 in. ‘thickness’ in 1,332 gals/mile^2 of oil).” As hard as I looked I could not find one single report giving any kind of numerical value to the actual size of the spill as it stands. But it looks as if, now the day after the well was reported successfully sealed shut, nobody wants to own up to what might turn out to be the most devastating ecological disaster we may ever know.

Initially only skimmers, dispersants, and controlled burning were used to try to contain and minimize the amount of damage that the awesome spill will inevitably cause. According to environmental experts at the beginning of the 109-day spill, this was the only real technology available at that time that would have proved any effectiveness at all. But with each of these came its price. Skimmers were thought to be effective at first, but by early July had BP reporting they had only skimmed about 67,000 barrels of oil total off the surface of the sea (basically the same amount we were losing each day). By that same time in July, BP was only recovering 1,000 barrels a day. By now estimates hover around 4.9 million barrels (approximately 151,900,000 gallons when converted) have been lost in total.
Aerial Picture of Gulf Spill (June 7th, 2010)
After controlled burns only served to anger environmentalists even more, the only option BP had left was to use chemical dispersants. Dispersants cause the oil to break down into smaller droplets and drop below the surface of the water, in theory allowing for things like bacteria and other natural filtration processes to easily digest the oil. One in particular, a chemical compound called Corexit 9527 (which has been BP’s main flavor of choice), contains the agent 2-butoxyethanol, which is known to cause internal liver and kidney damage to humans. With no prior precedence on record BP executives have authorized the use of almost 1.8 million gallons of Corexit 9527 (by mid July) before the EPA stepped in to test the substance for its toxicity levels. After realizing that the 9527 compound was too toxic, BP switched to the “less toxic” 9500 model, even after a mandate from the EPA telling BP to shut down dispersant operations completely.

Pre-Deepwater Horizon, this probably would have resulted in sanctions and widely heated debate, ending in a political quagmire of “he said, she said,” possibly ending BP’s tenure as the third largest energy company in the world, but sadly there is no other alternative at the moment. Toxicologist Carys Mitchelmore of the University of Maryland, who in 2005 wrote the book (so to speak) on the subject of dispersants talks about the lethal effect the 9500 model could have on the wildlife in a June 18th Scientific American article saying of it’s chemical make-up: “It’s the same products in the Dawn dishwasher soap. I wouldn’t put a fish in Dawn dishwashing soap either. It would kill it.”

But scientists are saying it’s way too early to start calling the size and scope of the spill’s destructive legacy just yet. Already some 1,900 birds have died as a result of the spill just within its first three months. And it can only get worse. The Gulf of Mexico is home to over 1,200 species of fish and some 29 different species of marine mammals. Twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez scientists are still mopping up the ugly consequences of data that show only, “increasing disease and mortality rates,” with many species now existing on the brink of extinction.

Things seem to only be getting worse, too. On July 27th, 2010, as if toying with Humanity, the powers at be decided to give us something else to roll over in our environmental graves about when a tugboat pushing a large barge through a Louisiana marsh struck a natural gas and oil platform causing the pipeline to spew 100ft plumes of gas and oil into the air. The “Big Easy,” seems to be more like the “Big Practical Joke,” or the “Big Waste-Of-Time,” these days, as disaster after disaster keep striking the area.

Today (August 5th) they say they stopped the leak. By cementing the well shut from the top, officials are optimistic that this will, “assure” no more leaking. Crews were able to force the oil down by first injecting 13lb. per gallon mud into the well and then sealed it shut with probably the most important batch of cement ever mixed in our countries concrete history.

So what now? What comes next in this black spiraling toilet bowl? Enough crude has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico to fill over 230 Olympic-size swimming pools. With only 203 registered countries in the world, it’s crazy to think that every single nation could be backstroking through their very own pool of black jewel at this very moment, with enough crude left over for hot tubs and saunas. My question is, how did this happen? What drunken loophole of negligence allowed for an insane causal chain of this magnitude to link its way together? And who’s to pay for all of this? Since the oil first began to flow, fingers have been pointed, blame has been cast, but none of it has done anything to deal with the real problem; that being the mass amounts of toxic chemicals snaking their way through our Gulf’s currents. BP’s shares are on the rise (which boggles my fucking mind) and the Federal Government is basically giving them full responsibility and control of all relief efforts. Maybe rightfully so, but these are the same people that thought it would be a good idea to inhibit safety alarms aboard the Deepwater Horizon rig in order to, “help workers sleep.”

After making serious headway in the 90’s and 00’s in the push to switch from petroleum-based fossil fuels to more environmentally-friendly alternatives, it almost seems like we took two giant metaphysical shotguns, pointed them at our temples, and pulled the trigger thinking nothing would fire but blanks. Here we are now; it’s 2010, a mere two years from the prophesized “end of the world” and at the moment it looks as though we’re headed in that direction with a sprint in our step (and oil in the shoe). We’ve engulfed ourselves in our own culture; made ourselves so dependant on one resource, one idea that to change our ways would almost mean having to throw it all away and start from scratch and it looks like it might be almost impossible to do so.

What’s been surprising from the start of this whole thing is the lack of concern I see in my fellow generational peers. People who grew up learning about the destruction of the rainforest, who participated extensively in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” program, people raised by the “Flower Child” generation all sitting back to just watch as over 2/3 of our Gulf coast has been shut down by “a bubblin’ crude.” We’re not just talking short-term here anymore. No wham and bam fix-it jobs. The time for band-aids and kisses are over. If America is to stay at the top and avoid a future akin to the that of the Roman Empire (to quote [possibly more apropos than I’ll ever know] Rage Against The Machine), “it has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime…”

“What better place than here, what better time than NOW!”


For more information on the Gulf Coast Oil Spill and relief efforts check out the following online resources:

www.bp.com/gulfofmexicoresponse - British Petroleum
www.greenpeace.org - Greenpeace USA (environmental campaign organization)
www.epa.gov/oilspill - The Environmental Protection Agency
www.doi.gov - The Department of the Interior



*Photos courtesy of Google Images