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Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Coming Era of Energy Disasters

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Isn't it strange that, no matter how terrible the news from the Gulf, the media still can't help offering a lurking, BP-influenced narrative of hope? Here's a recent headline from my hometown paper, for instance: "Signs of Hope as BP Captures Record Oil Amounts." The piece is based on a BP report that, last Thursday, its woefully inadequate, ill-fitting "top hat" had captured more than 25,000 barrels of the gushing oil -- that is, five times more than it long claimed was spewing from its busted well (25 times more than it originally suggested).

With semi-official estimates in the range of 35,000-60,000 barrels escaping a day (and those numbers regularly on the rise), this represents a strange version of hopeful news. Ominously enough, by the end of July, with a new, larger, "tighter" cap theoretically in place, BP is aiming to capture up to 80,000 barrels a day (that is, 20,000 barrels more than it has publicly acknowledged might possibly be spewing from the floor of the Gulf). In all such articles, the real narrative of hope, however, involves the relief wells, the first of which is now within "200 feet" of the busted well. Usually, the date for one of those wells to plug the leak is given as "early August" or "mid-August" and it's regularly said that the drilling of those wells is advancing "ahead of schedule."

Whatever "signs of hope" do exist, however, they're already badly beslimed by on-gushing reality. On the very day that BP announced its 25,000-barrel capture, huge amounts of methane were also reported to be pouring into the Gulf. Until now, this had evidently been largely overlooked (or under-reported), even though methane in high concentrations can deplete water of its oxygen and so suffocate marine life, creating vast dead zones and inhibiting the natural breakdown of the spilling oil. According to John Kessler, a Texas A&M oceanographer, the Deepwater Horizon spill represents "the most vigorous methane eruption in modern human history."

Meanwhile, if you read carefully, you'll note that those relief wells are no sure thing. They might not do the job until the fall or even, worst-case scenario, Christmas, or (even-worse-case scenario) they might fail entirely, leaving the well to spew oil and natural gas (with its methane) for an estimated two to four more years. And let's not forget general bad weather, as well as hurricane season bearing down on the Gulf, the possibility that the well's casing might be cracking or eroding -- meaning even more spillage or seepage -- and that a "clean-up" in which, in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's words, the Gulf ecosystem would be "restored and made whole," may not, as Naomi Klein wrote recently, be "remotely possible, at least not in a time frame we can easily wrap our heads around."

Worse yet, the disaster in the Gulf is largely being dealt with as a one-shot nightmare. It isn't. Consider our potential American Chernobyl as just a precursor to a future filled with "unexpected" energy mega-disasters, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, suggests. (To catch him discussing our dystopian energy future on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or to download it to your iPod, click here.) Tom

BP-Style Extreme Energy Nightmares to Come
Four Scenarios for the Next Energy Mega-Disaster

By Michael T. Klare

On June 15th, 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.

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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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The Hibernia platform is reinforced to withstand a direct impact by one of the icebergs that regularly sail through this stretch of water, located just a few hundred miles from where the Titanic infamously hit an iceberg and sank in 1912. Sixteen giant steel ribs protrude from the GBS, positioned in such a way as to absorb the blow of an iceberg and distribute it over the entire structure. However, the GBS itself is hollow, and contains a storage container for 1.3 million barrels of crude oil -- about five times the amount released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The owners of the Hibernia platform insist that the design will withstand a blow from even the largest iceberg. As global warming advances and the Greenland glaciers melt, however, massive chunks of ice will be sent floating into the North Atlantic on a path past Hibernia. Add increased storm activity (another effect of global warming) to an increase in iceberg frequency and you have a formula for overwhelming the Hibernia's defenses.

Here's the scenario: It's the stormy winter of 2018, not an uncommon situation in the North Atlantic at that time of year. Winds exceed 80 miles per hour, visibility is zilch, and iceberg-spotter planes are grounded. Towering waves rise to heights of 50 feet or more, leaving harbor-bound the giant tugs the Hibernia's owners use to nudge icebergs from the platform's path. Evacuation of the crew by ship or helicopter is impossible.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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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