What Can We Learn from the Gulf Spill?

May 19, 2010

For the past three weeks, oil has been gushing out of a broken oil well at the bottom of the sea floor in the Gulf of Mexico.  Thousands upon thousands of barrels of oil have poured out of that un-capped well after an explosion that killed as many as a dozen and ultimately sank the Transocean Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig owned by BP Oil Company. 

BP has promised to clean up the disaster, paying all costs and associated “legitimate” claims related to the loss, including over and above the $75 million liability limit imposed by U.S. law.  Members of Congress are already demanding confirmation of those promises, saying the American public has a right to know that the oil company will take care of this.

The oil company has now tried and failed at a couple of efforts to contain and manage the disaster.  They tried to lower a dome over the spill to stop the oil from spreading.  That failed when something like ice crystals formed as the boom was lowered towards the seabed.

They have tried to use booms to contain the spill and keep it from approaching the coastlines.  But tar balls are now showing up on beach areas off the coast of Alabama and other southeast United States locations.  Marine life is also being affected and we all know what that means: death and disease among vulnerable wildlife populations that have been coddled and cared for and lovingly protected from environmental abuse for decades are now at risk.

This past weekend, the oil company also attempted to attach another pipe to the free-flowing well at the bottom of the gulf.  They attempted on Saturday, but there was a shift in the platform beneath the water (at the exterior exit of the well) and they failed. 

There was word on Sunday that BP's efforts have succeeded: this will not cap the well, nor completely stop the leaking.  But it will siphon off a sizable percentage of the oil to a waiting vessel at the surface of the water, allowing the oil company to deal with that oil instead of spreading it on the water.  It's a small bit of good news, but it is all we have.

In the coming weeks, the oil company will probably be drilling a second well and while simultaneously attempting to cap the first one.  The cleanup has to get underway full swing.  The destruction of native habitats of sea life is going to continue and we're all going to want to go down to the Gulf, gather a few of these beautiful wild things and take them home.  We won't be able to, but we'll wish to take them home, clean their wings (and other parts) and nurture them back to health.

What we're learning in this scenario is that “worst case” can happen.  It can be horrifying and that writing a law that says “oh, yes, come drill in the healthy waters off our coast and if something bad happens, we'll only charge you XX dollars out of XXX,XXX,XXX dollars.”  That's what it's going to cost to clean up this mess.  That's the cost and threat of doing business with a high carbon footprint industry.  Because eventually, when they get this all cleaned up, we're still going to smell the oil in the air.  And it won't be pretty again, potentially for decades to come.


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