Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Earth Day Began With a Blowout, Will It End With One? Deepshit Horizon



Twenty seven offshore rigs were built along southern California's coastline in the 1960s. This was the inaugural boom era of deep water ocean drilling. Two key developments ushered it in. The first was a set of advances in mining technologies and engineering techniques that allowed for deeper drilling beneath the ocean surface, as well as the construction of towering rigs, some of which are taller than the Empire State building. The second key was Congressional legislation leading to the leasing of Outer Continental Shelf lands to oil firms in 1953. Dozens of offshore rigs surfaced along the California coastline in the 1960s. In regions where the geology and terrain was more suitable, and where deposits of oil were more prolific, rigs went up by the hundreds. Texas and Louisiana's Gulf Coast, for example, are cluttered with thousands of platforms today.

On January 28th, 1969 the Union Oil Company's Platform A, located six miles from Santa Barbara, experienced a "blow-out." Highly pressurized deposits of natural gas pushed upward against the newly bored well causing oil to leak from the pipe and casings. The roughnecks struggled to plug the well with mud and nearly succeeded. Then catastrophe struck. The brittle geologic formations underlying the ocean floor 188 feet beneath them began to crack. Long seams ripped across the submarine surface as gas boiled forth, bubbling toward the surfaces along with tens of thousands of barrels of oil. The blow-out was devastating. It killed untold numbers of fish, birds, and sea mammals, and even greater numbers of Sponges, Cnidarians, Worms, Lophophorates, Molluscs, Arthropods and other invertebrates. Kelp forests were wiped out. Beaches were choked with petroleum for miles east and west of Santa Barbara.

According to the self-indulgent Liberal-lore of California's coastal urbanites, this ecological disaster led to the "creation of the environmental movement." If by "environmental movement" we mean a largely aesthetic obsession for how the planet looks, and a willingness to technocratically manage "acceptable assessed risk levels" of exposure to toxins, perhaps it was. If the movement is about changing light bulbs, planting a tree every April, and altering consumer habits then it did spawn a movement. We've come a long way, haven't we?

Across coastal California "environmentalism" has arguably become the hegemonic political ideology and consumer identity. One cannot get elected to any state or local office without proclaiming fidelity to clean water, clear skies, and open space. And "green" has become the norm among the population. Hybrid cars are frequently spotted, recycling is legion, stores advertise "organic" this, and "fair trade" that. Even major timber corporations now talk about their logging operations as "sustainable" and energy companies like Chevron, headquartered in the Bay Area suburb of San Ramon, advertise themselves as eco-friendly suppliers of happiness by the kilowatt - "human energy" their latest ad campaign blabbers. This kind of environmentalism went national in the 1990s, and now most urbanites, especially blue state folks profess to pursue means of "living green."

To believe this fairy tale about the birth and existence of the movement, and be palliated by the accompanying scenery of so-called change you'd have to ignore a few historical facts and further delude yourself as to the nature of Earth Day and the context in which it has become a major holiday.

For one you'd have to forget that opposition to the environmental effects of industrial capitalism, consumerism, and imperialism were absolutely not galvanized in 1969 with the Union Oil Company spill in Santa Barbara. Nor did the fire on the Cuyahoga River of that same year create the movement. Ecological resistance and sustainable practices were already being articulated far and wide, long before one of California's most affluent (and majority white) communities had their beaches inconveniently soaked with the black blood of the earth. Indigenous peoples, anti-colonial movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, African Americans and Latinos in the "internal colonies" of the USA, and women in working class communities across the industrialized world had been building an oppositional consciousness against the poisoning and pillaging of their communities for centuries. Native American resistance against the United States' "manifest destiny" was an ecological movement, just as much as it was about sovereignty. Anti-colonial struggles against the British in India, and early rebellions against Spain in the New World were as much about opposition to the domination of South Asian agriculture for commodity export, or the enslavement of Bolivian and Mexican lands and labor as disposable mines of silver and gold, as they were about abstract ideals of national independence and patria. Environmentalism —care for the earth, for the diversity of life, and opposition to the capitalist or statist ethic which would have us believe that nature exist to provide us with "resources" for "progress" through economic growth— is as old as capitalism then.

Furthermore, in spite of the fact that all of the major environmental legislation protecting communities in the United States was passed in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara spill and several other high profile domestic disasters of the early 1970s, the fact remains that in practically all categories, the environment is suffering worse today than it was then. The problems have gone global and become bigger than they ever were. With the exception of several specific pollutants, emissions of nearly every toxic chemical byproduct of industry into water and soils has expanded on a global scale. CO2 emissions are higher than ever, of course. And even with the recycling of paper, aluminum and like materials, more forests are leveled and more bauxite mines tear into the earth today than in 1970. There are more cars on the road. There are fewer unpaved spaces, fewer stands of old growth, fewer un-damned rivers, fewer species, and fewer roadless areas. There are more cancers, more asthma, more clusters of maladies caused by the accumulation of synthetic toxins, teratogens, and carcinogens. There are more toxic waste dumps and ever-expanding land fills and now great oceanic stews full of plasticized garbage.

Today it is nothing short of delusional to "celebrate" Earth Day and hail the "progress" we've made.

Ironically, and tragically, this year's Earth Day celebrations coincided with another oil rig blow-out, this time offshore of Louisiana. Like other recent mining disasters, the explosion and sinking of the rig caused by a well blow-out has claimed the lives of at least eleven workers.

Named the Deepwater Horizon, the rig is as massive and ocean-straddling as it sounds. Costing about $600 million, it was built over a span of three years by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Heavy Industries. Delivered to the Gulf of Mexico in 2001, Deepwater Horizon spent the last decade floating from prospect to prospect, sinking wells, and moving on while stationary rigs were set atop its exploits. The Deepwater Horizon is a mobile mega-rig, among the largest and most advanced in the world. Some of its complex operations are carried out via satellite by technicians in Houston who relay commands through computer terminals. It has, it had, a live-aboard workforce of 126.

In its short operating life Deepwater Horizon lived up to its name by expanding the scale and scope of humanity's planetary oil mining ambitions, and the outer limits of irresponsible economic expansion. It's recent discoveries, drilling accomplishments, and now its self-immolation also have ushered in an era in which the consequences of further hydrocarbon exploitation will become increasingly clear to all of us. Our economy's limitless appetite for petroleum is becoming increasingly and undeniably the cause of heretofore unimaginable disasters, both as episodic tragedies, as in the case of Deepwater Horizon, as well as systemic disasters that will undermine the basis of life on earth far into the future.

Deepwater Horizon holds the record for boring the deepest oil and gas well in the world, a 35,050 foot vertical penetration. This astounding feat was accomplished no less while working in over 4000 feet of water. It was this exploratory well that led BP, plc, the British oil giant that leases the Deepwater Horizon from its owners Transocean, to announce last year the discovery of the immense Tiber prospect. Tiber is an oil field with perhaps 3 billion barrels in recoverable deposits. If Horizon and other mega-rigs were to make more discoveries like Tiber then the decline of oil output in the Gulf of Mexico, which peaked in 2003 at 1.56 million barrels per day, could be temporarily overcome. Oil industry guru Daniel Yergin said so much when he told the Washington Post that the find "demonstrates how technology continues to expand the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico."

Prolonging the age of oil is excellent news for the energy industry and Wall Street financiers who bank on its success. It's also good news for American consumers who seem to care more about cheap goods than un-payable foreign and ecological debts. Extending the era of oil even a few years beyond its projected decline after the global peak of production (which probably occurred in 2008), and the US domestic production peak (which occurred in 1970 at 10 million barrels per day), is of course catastrophic with respect to climate change and all the other environmental damages associated with oil, from well to tailpipe.

Deepwater Horizon was exploring the literal horizons of deep water drilling precisely because there are virtually no high quality oil deposits left in easily exploited regions. The days of gushers in the shallow fields of Texas and California are long over. Corporate energy giants like BP, and ConocoPhillips, as well as state firms like Petroleo Brasileiro, SA (which are minority shareholders in the Tiber field) are shifting their industrial and financial assets quickly into high-risk and ecologically devastating operations like the Tiber in response to the peak and decline of oil production. States and corporations across the world are following suit. Canada's tar sands —easily the single most dangerous economic operation in existence— is a perfect case in point. The tar sands have tied up billions of dollars in development, wiped out many square miles of boreal forests lands, and proportionally produced more greenhouse gas emissions as a result of extraction than any other hydrocarbon source. Like ultra-deep ocean wells, tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada, and other sites worldwide, are expected to grow in scale as the price of oil rises. It has kept oil cheap in the USA, where Canada has become the largest source of imports.

This year as North Americans celebrated the 40th Earth Day and the Deepwater Horizon went down in flames, Peabody Coal, the largest private coal company, announced profits up ten percent from last year. The company's CEO told global financial markets that "with rising Australian volumes and pricing and a growing global trading and brokerage business, we have enormous capacity to capitalize on expanding Asian coal demand." He added, "we have the leading position in the lowest-cost U.S. regions, with leverage to improving prices as the economy recovers." Meanwhile two southern California casino's took Earth Day as an opportunity to release detailed figures on their sustainability efforts, including their composting of 10-12 tons of food scraps from their buffets, and five tons of co-mingled recyclable materials, each week. At one of the nation's two nuclear weapons design and production labs in Los Alamos New Mexico, lab officials urged their employees to participate in Earth Day. Among other things the nuclear weaponers were asked by the lab's Earth Day web site to: "Participate! Check out our Facebook; Buy locally grown food; Learn about saving residential energy, and; Reduce, reuse and recycle." Not to be out-greened by the nuclear weapons establishment, casinos, or big coal, the US Navy announced that in honor of the holiday, "The Green Hornet, an F/A-18 Super Hornet fueled with a 50/50 mixture of biofuel made from camelina oil, will fly on Earth Day, April 22, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md."

This is the deepshit horizon, a point at the edge of environmental oblivion toward which are racing faster than ever, Earth Day or no Earth Day. Indeed, Earth Day seems to have largely become an enabler of denial and self-immolating lies, undermining any ability or will to acknowledge the crises we face. The consequences beyond the deepshit horizon include a planetary die-off of all life, including humans. Beyond the deepshit horizon is a point of no return, involving climatological feedback loops that will be fueled by thawing permafrost and melting polar caps and glaciers. Somewhere out there, within the time frame of several more generations, in the economic frame of perhaps a few more business cycles, a decade or so status quo levels of coal fired energy and a billion cars, out there is mass extinction and an end to the planetary conditions that created and sustain life.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: darwin@riseup.net

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