Saturday, September 25, 2010

making sense of Macondo I

--climate happenings are at the data bank--

(On second thought, slightly revised 1 Oct 2010...)

News came in last Sunday, five months after the blowout, that the Macondo well is finally sealed. On 20 April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, killing eleven workers (plus two who died later) and leading to an out-of-control gusher at the bottom of the seafloor, 1,500 m deep and 66 km from the Louisiana coast. In May BP tried to disperse and collect the oil; efforts to seal the well failed. In June, a plug was inserted in the well-head, and some of the oil was siphoned off to a tanker. In July a cap was put on the wellhead; on 10 July 2010 BP said that the cap was holding, but it wasn’t clear whether oil was still seeping out. Relief-wells were drilled. In August, the containment was strengthened. On 19 Sept 2010 the well was declared sealed.

Estimates of the spill amount vary, partly because of BP’s attempted cover-up (barring scientists outside the company from examining the site), partly because of the US government lowballing the numbers. Why the federal government tried to hide the damage and protect the corporation is not entirely clear. There are also physical reasons for the variation in estimate. The spill happened a mile below the surface. The mixture spilled consisted of heavy crude, light oil, and gas, with the heavy stuff sinking to the ground, the light stuff rising to the surface, and the rest hovering as giant plumes in the deep. The corporation sprayed dispersant to make the oil that had risen to the surface go away again. From a physicist’s viewpoint, dispersing oil while collecting oil is stupid—if you scatter it you can't gather it, and if you gather it you shouldn’t scatter it. From a sociologist’s perspective, using dispersants during collection is smart, because the US culture is empirically oriented. If you don't see it, it can't be bad. Indeed, various GOP leaders said just that. (The same out-of-sight-out-of-mind cognition contributes to climate denial in the U.S. culture.)

Best estimates came from outside academics not on the corporate payroll or under federal pressure. The oil spill lasted 87 days. The amount spilled is 205 mil gallons or 4.9 mil barrels according to the New York Times, 870 mil liters or 600,000 tons of crude according to Die Zeit, and 780,000 cubic meters according to Nouvel Obs. It is the largest marine oil spill in human history. (Two spills on land, the 1991 Kuwait-Iraq Gulf War spill and the 1910 California Lakeview gusher, were larger.) Let’s put this in context. The worst spill for Europeans was the 1978 Amoco Cadiz breaking up at France’s coast, spilling 1.6 mil barrels of crude. The worst spill for Americans before 2010 was the Exxon Valdez shipwreck at Alaska’s Prince William sound in 1989, spilling between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels. What happened in the Gulf 2010 was three times as bad as the Amoco Cadiz spill, and between six and nineteen times as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill.

Some argue that the Macondo blowout was not as bad as the Exxon Valdez spill. The former occurred in the Gulf in summer, when air and sea temps are hot. The latter occurred in Alaska in March, when air and sea temps are cold. The heat in and over the Gulf, they say, allowed much oil to evaporate and be eaten by bacteria. The cold at Prince William Sound let the oil wash onshore as is. It sounds sensible and would be nice if it were true. Two problems, though. One, the bacteria in the Gulf ate the methane but not the oil. Two, the oil spilled in the deep sea, where the temps are cold too; only little of the oil made it to the surface where heat is a factor.

The oil that rests on the ground and hovers in plumes will in all likelihood create dead zones. The marine ecosystem is running, but not as well anymore. American Capitalism has done to the Gulf what Soviet Communism once did to the Baltic Sea. The Baltic went partly dead; jelly fish took over; biodiversity plummeted. The Gulf awaits a similar fate. Here heat is a liability. Cold waters are nutrient-rich, warm waters are nutrient-poor. Gulf temps are rising with climate change anyway, and the anoxic zones that may emerge would only speed up the marine desertification. This also means that the Gulf’s climatic function, to take up atmospheric carbon, is now impaired.

But all of this is systemic and subtle, rational and predictive. It’s not empirically ‘there’ or in your face. The beaches are pristine. The water is great. The swimming is awesome. It’s back to the old normal. There are still no solar collectors on people’s houses. There are no wind turbines in sight. There are no new nuclear power plants. The government still refuses to give subsidies to green housing. Florida construction companies or at least those that haven’t gone under yet still build inefficient McMansions. There’s still the same giant volume of automobile traffic on Florida’s highways. Most motorists still drive obese SUVs, outsized pickups, and infantile Hummers. Only Mexican gardeners and the Mad Hun bicycle. The first modest high speed rail project in Florida is still an open question; the received federal funds must be matched by state funds for construction to start, and the state coffers are empty. A subway system isn’t even on the drawing board. No Floridian would even dream about building a metro here; they say the city’s too close to sea level and there’s water underground. Shanghai and Kaohsiung (Taiwan) are as close to sea level as Tampa is, both have terrific subway systems, with very cool Siemens-built trains. France and England are joined by the 50 km long high-speed Chunnel under the North Sea. But, it appears that the engineering vision realized in Europe and Asia remains a foreign perspective here.

All in all, the BP oil spill wasn’t big enough to make Gulf Coast residents shake off their carbon complacency. From what I see in Tampa Bay, the American Disenlightenment continues. To me, that's the meaning of the Macondo blowout in the Gulf. At least, that's the environmental sense I draw from it. Scott Schneider rightly reminded me, however, that the ethical dimension of Macondo is an altogether different story.

To be continued ...

Seventy-five months left.

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