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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Oil Rush to Hell

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This article first appeared at TomDispatch.com.

[TomDispatch Follow-Up:Three weeks ago, Noam Chomsky wrote a blistering piece at TomDispatch, "Eyeless in Gaza," on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It might be worth a reread or catch his TomCast audio interview here. This week, the 81-year-old Chomsky got a firsthand taste of the situation there when Israel's Interior Ministry refused his daughter and him entry into Israel and the West Bank. He was to give a talk at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah and his rejection ostensibly came, in part, because he was not lecturing at an Israeli university as well (though he has done so many times in the past). By now, practically an international incident, it caught something of the depressingly extreme mood of the moment in Israel.]

It took President Obama 24 days to finally get publicly angry and "rip" into BP and its partners for the catastrophic oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. What was he waiting for? The pattern has been obvious enough: however bad you thought it was, or anyone said it was at any given moment, it's worse (and will get worse yet). Just take the numbers.

In the first days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20th, reports from the Coast Guard and BP indicated that no oil was leaking into the Gulf from the damaged well. Then, the oil giant reported that, actually, about 1,000 barrels a day were coming out of it. Almost immediately the federal government raised that figure to 5,000 barrels, which remained the generally accepted estimate until, under pressure, BP finally released a dramatic 30-second clip of the actual leak at the wellhead. By then,according to ABC News, both the company and the White House had had access to the video for three weeks and obviously knew that the gold-standard estimate was wrong by a country mile. Since then, estimates by scientists viewing the video clip (who have been prevented by BP from visiting the site itself, looking at more material, or taking more accurate measurements), run from 25,000 barrels to a staggering 70,000 barrels a day or more-- up to, that is, 3.4 million gallons of oil daily, which would mean an Exxon Valdez-sized spill every few days.

The BP disaster in the Gulf may prove historic in the worst sense -- especially since much of its damage still remains out of sight, hidden below the surface of the Gulf's waters in what already are gigantic plumes of oil in the water column going down 4,000 feet that threaten to rob Gulf waters of oxygen and create vast dead zones in areas previously rich in sea life. Simply put, this is scary stuff, environmental damage on a scale we don't normally contemplate. And it's probably just a start, given that whatever news story comes next only seems to have more of the same -- including the fact that the Obama administration's Interior Department followed in the infamous footsteps of the Bush administration. In 2009, it "exempted BP's calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis." (And, of course, mere weeks before the explosion, the president was urging yet more deep-water off-shore drilling and reassuring Americans that it wasn't terribly dangerous, while less than two weeks before its oil rig blew, BP was vigorously lobbying to expand its exemptions.)

At TomDispatch, Michael Klare, author of the invaluable Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, has been warning for years that the easy oil and natural gas energy reserves on Planet Earth are quickly disappearing and that we're entering a "tough oil" era. Thanks to the depletion of other crucial natural resources as well, the century to come is likely to prove more extreme in many ways, including the climate. BP has given us an unfortunate taste of that extremity. And that's at only 5,000 feet below the waves. What will happen when BP starts drilling down 35,000 feet under the Gulf for the giant oil reserves it's dubbed Tiber, located some 250 miles southeast of Houston, and something goes wrong? Hold your hats. Simply put, this is the path to hell. When will an "angry" president really mobilize the government to deal with this disaster (and the others to come)?Tom

The Relentless Pursuit of Extreme Energy
A New Oil Rush Endangers the Gulf of Mexico and the Planet

By Michael T. Klare

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 ofTough 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.

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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 bya 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.

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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.

Drilling in Alaska and the Arctic poses, if anything, even more perilous challenges, given the extreme environmental and climatic conditions to be dealt with. Any drilling rigs deployed offshore in, say, Alaska's Beaufort or Chukchi Seas must be hardened to withstand collisions with floating sea ice, a perennial danger, and capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and powerful storms. In addition, in such hard-to-reach locations, BP-style oil spills, whether at sea or on land, will be even more difficult to deal with than in the Gulf. In any such situation, an uncontrolled oil flow is likely to prove lethal to many species, endangered or otherwise, which have little tolerance for environmental hazards.

The major energy firms insist that they have adopted ironclad safeguards against such perils, but the disaster in the Gulf has already made mockery of such claims, as does history. In 2006, for instance, a poorly-maintained pipeline at a BP facility ruptured, spewing 267,000 gallons of crude oil over Alaska's North Slope in an area frequented by migrating caribou. (Because the spill occurred in winter, no caribou were present at the time and it was possible to scoop up the oil from surrounding snow banks; had it occurred in summer, the risk to the Caribou herds would have been substantial.)

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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