05.10.2010 0

The End of the Oil Boom?

By Michael Swartz –

The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico drew limited headlines upon its occurrence, with the biggest news at the time being the 11 workers missing after the rig’s explosion and fire. It wasn’t until the discovery that crude oil was leaking into the Gulf because of a faulty shutoff valve that the story moved to front-page headline status.

At a rate of perhaps 5,000 barrels per day, the spill – more properly described as a gusher akin to the proverbial Texas oil strike because of the pressure bearing from beneath the Gulf floor – may turn out to rival the amount of oil lost in the 1989 Exxon Valdez shipping accident. Obviously the immediate environmental damage from the oil spill will be severe and economic damage to the local seafood industry catastrophic; fortunately, we also know from the Exxon Valdez accident that eventually the region will be able to recover. Since crude extracted from the Gulf is relatively light in weight, the oil isn’t the thick black gunk most people think of when they think of an oil spill; rather, the result is a silvery sheen on the surface which may be easier to disperse through chemical means.

Long-term impact on the oil industry may be more disastrous. Needless to say, environmentally conscious Democrats called on Obama to drop his proposed offshore exploration program in the wake of the accident, and White House adviser David Axelrod agreed, saying, “no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what has happened here.” Axelrod’s response to the accident, ironically occurring on the eve of Earth Day, suggests the open-ended nature of the moratorium may lead to more regulatory hurdles for oil operations in the Gulf.

For decades, exploration in the Gulf of Mexico had progressed without incident, and the more than 3,500 platforms already producing in our portion of the Gulf routinely endured shutdowns brought on by approaching hurricanes and regular maintenance. In these cases the shutoff valves did their job, making the Deepwater Horizon incident an outlier. Nor can the prospect of sabotage or terrorism be ruled out given the enticing target presented by what was essentially a seagoing vessel tenuously rooted to a wellhead 5,000 feet below the surface. The Deepwater Horizon was one of only about two dozen rigs situated in a water depth more than 1,000 meters – the technology of deepwater drilling is still maturing.

Yet billions of barrels of oil lie entombed underneath the Gulf of Mexico. Undoubtedly there is an argument underscored by the Deepwater Horizon tragedy which says we need to back down, but when you compare the safety record of Gulf drilling to that of shipping 9 million barrels of oil per day for our use over many of those same waters and the prospect for disaster there, the risk is worthwhile.

As we stand right now, there is no perfectly safe or perfectly reliable form of energy out there and the Deepwater Horizon accident points out the possible (but historically unlikely) downside of oil dependence. But coal also has drawbacks and safety concerns as recent mining accidents remind us, while the pesky problem of waste and threat from radiation dogs proponents of nuclear power. Renewable energy is great in concept, but the reliability of solar and wind energy obviously depends on optimum weather conditions.

Accidents will happen, but there’s no reason to stop oil exploration after this tragedy. The record of safety is no longer unblemished but still exemplary, and on balance the benefits still outweigh the risks. Let’s get oil workers back to work.

Michael Swartz, an architect and writer who lives in rural Maryland, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer.

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