Offshore Oil is an Avoidable Tragedy

The catastrophic explosion in the Gulf gives us reason to re-evaluate offshore oil’s place in a 21st century energy economy. The explosion killed eleven workers and caused a massive oil spill that has shut down one of the most fertile fishing grounds in the US. The oil spewing from the well is hitting coastlines and is a serious threat to wildlife, marine habitats, livelihoods and human health.

Fire consumes the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform and lights the night sky on April 21st

As much as 210,000 gallons of oil a day may be gushing through the ruptured wellhead and it could take 90 days to stem the black tide.

The leaking offshore oil well is owned by BP and is located off Louisiana's coast, 5,000 feet under the ocean surface. BP is the world's third-largest oil company and made more than $6 billion in the first three months of this year. The incident began when Swiss-based Transocean Ltd's Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire while finishing a well for BP. Ironically, Deepwater Horizon sank on Earth Day (April 22), two days after the initial explosion.

The underwater well continues to dump vast quantities of oil into the ocean and bad weather hampered early efforts to clean up the spill with controlled burning and dispersal agents. Oil now covers thousands of square miles in the Gulf of Mexico threatening fragile shorelines in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Florida.

Deepwater oil rig spills are not without precedent, in 1979 through 1980, off the coast of Mexico, 140 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into the ocean. However, the amount of oil flowing from the recent explosion of the Deepwater Horizon puts it on track to become the worst oil spill in history, surpassing the damage done by the Exxon Valdez tanker that spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the ecologically sensitive Prince William Sound in 1989.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency, President Obama said he will utilize every available resource at his disposal, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised an all-out response.

US agencies have deployed remotely operated underwater vehicles to try to activate a balky blowout preventer, a 450-ton tangle of pipes and valves that usually works automatically. They're also using a remotely operated underwater vehicle to pump dispersants to break up the oil as it pours from the well.

More permanent solutions include drilling a new well that would cause the oil to flow in a different direction, but this approach could take several months. Capping the wellhead with a dome may be the most expedient approach as this could be done in two to four weeks. The plan is to cover the leak with a 98-ton concrete-and-metal box structure known as a cofferdam, and funnel the oil to the surface. While capping the wellhead has worked in shallower waters, it has yet to be achieved at depths of 5,000 feet.

Even with all the resources being devoted to manage the spill, the damage cannot be contained. The oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is causing many to question President Obama’s plans for a limited expansion of US offshore oil and gas drilling.

Coincidentally, around the time the Deepwater Horizon was burning, some of the major oil companies were reporting substantial earnings. Exxon Mobil posted a 38% increase in profits, and Occidental Petroleum saw their profit nearly triple. The explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and big oil’s profits are fueling growing resistance to offshore oil exploitation.

Big oil may be posting record profits, but this disaster will end up costing taxpayers money. Even more importantly, this black tide is polluting the Gulf's waters, beaches, and wetlands. Wildlife is at risk, but so are the people living in Gulf Coast communities, they will have to live with the repercussions of this event for years to come.

This uncapped underwater gusher is damaging the economy as well as the environment. The oil spill has already drained $32 billion from BP's stock market value and billions more will be spent in management efforts. These events persuasively demonstrate how offshore oil imperils ecosystems, destroys livelihoods and undermines the economy.

Offshore oil is inconsistent with a 21st century economy, particularly in light of the fact that clean energy can provide more jobs, less pollution, and real energy independence.

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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics and eco-economics.

Image credit: SkyTruth, courtesy Flickr. Photo courtesy of the US Coast Guard. Source: www.incidentnews.gov/incident/8220

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