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Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Nightmare Scenario

Underwater gusherAs I write, BP CEO Tony Hayward is just beginning his grilling by the Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations. It's not going well. Capital Police have already pulled a protester out of the audience. If you missed it, Huffington Post has his prepared testimony here. It's not especially enlightening. This is bad, BP's doing everything they can, they're drilling relief wells and catching a bunch of oil and blah, blah, blah. I didn't learn anything new. If you care, Tony says he's "personally devastated" by this whole thing. I'm sure that makes everyone feel much better.

It's against this backdrop that I bring something extremely disturbing to your attention. Sharon Astyk at ScienceBlogs directs us to a comment in a comment thread at a popular oil news blog:

Reader Stephen B. pointed me to this comment at The Oil Drum by someone who argues that there's more going on under the Gulf that we think. For those who think it is strange that I be highlighting a comment in a thread, I should note that TOD attracts many, many petroleum geologists and other professionals, and while sometimes the comments are the same "pulled it out of my ass" as on every other website, often, the technical knowledge on offer is pretty astounding. This one passes my smell test, which is usually pretty good -- that doesn't mean I claim commenter Doug R is right -- it means I think his information is interesting enough to be worth exposing to a wider audience for clarification or correction.

I wouldn't normally pass something like this on. But the comment is detailed, sourced, and thorough enough to qualify as its own blog post and it's caught the attention of both Astyk and Mother Jones environmental journalist Julia Whitty. What Doug R argues is that all of the actions BP has taken so far are consistent with an escalating problem. And that problem is that the well site is basically collapsing into the well, which would result in an unstoppable gusher. "It's a race now," he writes, "a race to drill the relief wells and take our last chance at killing this monster before the whole weakened, wore out, blown out, leaking and failing system gives up it's last gasp in a horrific crescendo."

It's not my intention to pass on rumor, especially from an anonymous comment in a blog -- no matter how knowledgeable that commenter seems to be. If he's right, even capturing a significant percentage of the oil as it escapes would be impossible -- and somewhere around 2 billion gallons will spew out into the Gulf before the well finally gives up the ghost. We'd think of the Gulf Coast as it is right now -- oil-soaked birds, poisoned marshes, and all -- as the good old days. I'm not suggesting that this is happening, but I want to point out that this is possible.

And if it's possible at Deepwater Horizon, it's possible at any other of the deepwater sites out there. This could happen and, no matter how unlikely the odds, each rig increases them. How much of a risk is it wise to take -- especially when the consequences can be so catastrophic?

If this did happen, no corporation in the world would be able to cover the damage. You could liquidate the entire company and it wouldn't make a dent. The Gulf of Mexico would be become the graveyard of extinct species and the coastlines would have to be evacuated. The cost would fall on the taxpayers and the economy would take a massive hit.

Right now, I'm working on the assumption that Doug R is either wrong or needlessly pessimistic. Mostly because I've still got to get through the day. But ask yourself how badly it is that we actually need oil. Ask yourself how long we're going to keep taking this risk. Ask yourself how bad the consequences have to be before it's not worth it anymore.


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