As if we needed another facet to the global climate change and energy demand debates, we can now add the following: evidence is mounting that our insatiable consumption of petroleum has finally (and inevitably) brought us to the cusp of Peak Oil. More hard decisions are going to be required in the near future, and it is critical that we avoid succumbing to our natural inclination towards easy fixes.
Among other things, surpassing Peak Oil means that the sheer volume of crude oil coming from the Gulf states is going to be regulated not by production, but by availability, and we can safely assume that the oil companies will turn this into another huge profit-making opportunity. We can also assume that the huge profits they've already made will be used to color the debate about how to deal with the soon-to-be-dwindling supplies of the substance we are so addicted to, so it's important to keep an eye out for "science for hire" elements in these debates:
Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.
Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The AEI has received more than $1.6m from ExxonMobil and more than 20 of its staff have worked as consultants to the Bush administration. Lee Raymond, a former head of ExxonMobil, is the vice-chairman of AEI's board of trustees.
The letters, sent to scientists in Britain, the US and elsewhere, attack the UN's panel as "resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work" and ask for essays that "thoughtfully explore the limitations of climate model outputs".
While these efforts to sway the climate change debate ultimately failed, they have helped to create a distrust the average citizen feels towards scientific opinion in general, and particularly in areas where it conflicts with our lifestyle and behavior.
So, just as nuclear power has become more "palatable" to the average citizen in light of carbon emissions worries, on- and off-shore domestic oil exploration and drilling are becoming more desirable, especially in light of current gas prices, looming Peak Oil and our growing distrust of oil-rich countries in the Middle East. While this is a natural reaction to the problems we are facing, it is not a wise course of action, for several reasons.
For economic purposes, the costs of pursuing this course, especially in light of the limited amount (density) of crude oil deposits that can be harvested domestically, makes this a questionable venture at best. We will not see a substantial market-driven drop in the price of gas at the pump, and the sheer volume of oil that we use means we will have to continue to import from dubious sources in an ever-increasing competition with other nations. Whatever resources we dedicate to this delaying action are resources that could be used to develop newer technologies and efficiency measures, both of which have the potential to offset several times the amount of oil we could suck out of the ground here at home.
Environmentally speaking, the expansion of off-shore drilling operations to include Western Atlantic areas (such as the N.C. coast) will have a devastating and irreversable effect on benthic and beach ecosystems, as well as migratory fish and bird species. And in answer to a comment on another thread here:
I've been to the Texas Gulf Coast. Have you? Those habitats are doing just fine. In fact marine life thrives at the oil rigs.
First of all, the term "thriving" is often associated with an imbalance in an ecosystem, indicating that something's out of whack. It is true that many benthic species are extremely adaptable, and the introduction of a drilling platform seemingly only disrupts life cycles for around 8-10 months before (most) populations return in numbers, often appearing to have benefited from the disruption. But that is a deceptive phenomenon, as it serves to conceal vast changes that have taken place.
The ecosystems themselves are incredibly complex, composed of thousands of species ranging from the tiniest of single-celled creatures all the way up to very large and far-ranging fish species. They are all connected to each other through predation, and any sudden change in the numbers and/or physiology of one species sets a ripple effect in motion that can affect changes in predation cycles a thousand (or more) miles away. This is one of the reasons I am against dredging, because it always has an impact, and we rarely pay much attention to what it will mean in the long run.
In addition to this, the makeup and behavior of these ecosystems vary (sometimes greatly) from one oceanic region to the next, and a comparison of the environmental impact of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to those proposed for the Continental Shelf on the Atlantic coast will only produce inaccurate assumptions of the impact on ecosystems here. Basically, we don't know what to expect, but there will be changes.
We can, however, observe the behavior and likely contamination from the platforms themselves in the Gulf of Mexico, just to get an idea of what we could expect here in North Carolina. Here's Enid Sisskin, from her testimony before Congress two years ago:
These declines are for the most part, caused by humans. In Environmental Impact Statements for lease sales and drilling permits, the MMS and USEPA admit concern about the long-term and regional effects of some of the wastes that would be discharged into the Gulf of Mexico by drilling rigs.
In spite of some of the testimony you’ve heard, drilling, whether for oil or natural gas is a dirty, polluting business. Each rig discharges drilling muds and cuttings and produced water, as well as producing trash. Again, according to the environmental documents, these waste discharges could affect biological communities by smothering living organisms or through toxicity, causing slow growth, decreased species abundance, or altered reproduction.
Specifically, discharged muds have been found to cause heavy metal, mercury and cadmium, sediment contamination. Documented biological effects on benthic organisms from drilling discharges include elimination and inhibited growth of seagrasses, declined abundance in species, altered community structure, and decreased coral coverage. Localized effects on benthic marine organisms in proximity to OCS drilling sites have been measured, causing altered community structure, and changes in abundance lasting for ten years, or in some cases, permanently.
And considering the paths that many tropical storms take, bringing them into close proximity of Cape Hatteras, this part is extremely important:
Another potential impact is from spills. There’s a new urban myth – that there have not been any spills from drilling rigs in years. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. Just a year ago, almost to the day, a 560 gallon spill from an Amerada Hess drilling platform washed up on the Breton National Wildlife Refuge oiling more than 800 pelicans in the rookery and killing almost 500 of them.
According to the MMS, due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 113 drilling platforms were lost and 146 hurricane-related oil/condensate/chemical spills were reported, six of at least 1,000 barrels (42,000 gal) were identified, the largest being 3,625 barrels (152,250 gal). Based on historical spill events, it is expected that elevated concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons measurable in the water column would be gone as early as 6 months after the spill event, but residual water quality effects could occur as long as two years after the spill.
In addition to pollutants, there is another (and possibly more devastating) impact to benthic and coastal ecosystems that mobile drilling platforms are known to bring about: invasive species.
As I mentioned earlier, these regional ecosystems are comprised of a multitude of varying species interconnected through predation. Individual species have developed behaviors and physical traits which allow them to prey and defend within their niche. The introduction of an "alien" species into the ecosystem renders some of these species totally defenseless, and populations can be obliterated in short order while the newcomers spread like wildfire. Folks from coastal areas are probably already familiar with this problem, but I hadn't really noticed the issue until I started visiting my sister in the Puget Sound.
Here's an Oyster Drill, which is a Japanese emigre that has been wreaking havoc on Liberty Bay (remember my kayak picture?)
While this phenomena is most commonly associated with surface vessels, mobile drilling platforms represent a much greater threat. They are often the home of what's known as "cities", literally hundreds of different species that have attached themselves and formed their own ecosystem on the platform structure itself. Which is then transported and plopped down directly on the seabed elsewhere, producing the benthic equivalent of a Normandy Invasion.
As I stated above, we have some hard decisions ahead of us. In order for us to make the right ones, we must be prepared to accept a few painful facts: 1) our behavior has brought us to this crossroads, and 2) our behavior must change. Plainly put, we have way too many cars on the road. It's the primary reason we've hit Peak Oil so soon, and it's also contributed a great deal to the carbon levels in our atmosphere and the toxicity of our air and water. The thing is, we can change that behavior. It won't be easy, and our consumer-based society and economy will resist this behavioral change vigorously. But we can change. If I didn't believe that, I would not waste my time talking about these things.