Oil Devotion Could Mean Climate No Motion

The one-foot waves today in the Gulf of Mexico were described as “tranquil” as BP started to lower a 70-ton case through 5,000 feet of water to contain the source of an oil leak that threatens the shorelines of four states. Guiding the steel cover over the well shaft in pitch-black waters at crushing depths, said engineers, is like floating a toy parachute off the Empire State Building and landing on a paperclip in the street.oil-booms

The political equivalent, of course, is what’s happening in the Senate with the climate and energy bill, which also is navigating in murky political waters and under enormous partisan pressure.

Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, in a joint statement today, said they would introduce a comprehensive climate and energy bill next Wednesday. They said they would do so without the participation of Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has been working for months on climate and energy policy with his two Senate colleagues. Sen. Graham abandoned the effort last week over differences with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over timing of the floor debate on the Senate energy bill, and immigration.

Kerry and Lieberman Promote Climate Bill
Senators Kerry and Lieberman said they were enthusiastic about the bill’s chances. “The last weeks have given everyone with a stake in this issue a heightened understanding that as a nation, we can no longer wait to solve this problem which threatens our economy, our security and our environment,” said the statement. “Our optimism is bolstered because there is a growing and unprecedented bi-partisan coalition from the business, national security, faith and environmental communities that supports our legislation and is energized to work hard and get it passed.”

Carol Browner, the assistant to the president for energy and climate change, told Bloomberg Television, that the Gulf spill could help spur public support for the bill. “This accident, this tragedy, is actually heightening people’s interest in energy in this country and in wanting a different energy plan,” Browner said.

The Gulf spill did indeed provide fresh evidence of the dramatic consequences of the nation’s devotion to oil, and prompted grassroots demonstrations to encourage clean energy investment and to reduce oil demand in several Gulf coast communities and around the country. In addition climate science, which forms the research foundation for new policy that encourages the clean energy transition to curb emissions of greenhouse gases, also generated fresh attention this week.

Science Supported
On Friday, Science Magazine published a letter from 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences that stated “there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.” The letter, written in response to the December hacking of email messages from East Anglia University and other attacks on climate science, also called to an end to the “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

Politics and Oil
The letter also came as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli targets Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and former faculty member of University of Virginia. The attorney general is demanding that the university turn over e-mails and other documents that involve Mann’s research and contacts under a statute that is designed to detect fraud in government contracts, an action the Washington Post called “chilling.”

The targeting of climate scientists by political opponents is hampering action on the climate and energy bill. So is the Gulf spill and its long streams of oil the color of dried blood. Early in the week Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Bill Nelson of Florida held a news conference to alert their colleagues that any provisions that expand offshore oil exploration have no place in a comprehensive climate and energy bill. By the way, those one-foot waves? Winds and waves are expected to pick up considerably over the weekend.

— Keith Schneider

Bubbling and Crude: Gulf Coast Spill Reflects Devotion to Wealth, Power, and Oil

On March 17, two weeks to the day before President Barack Obama laid out a new plan to expand offshore oil exploration in the United States, a government auction of federally controlled oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico was held at the New Orleans Superdome. It took just a few hours for 77 energy companies to pledge $1.3 billion to the U.S. Treasury to look for oil and natural gas across a 2.4 million-acre expanse of bottomlands 200 miles from shore, and in most cases thousands of feet below the surface.

The lease sale, one of the most lucrative on record, bolstered the Gulf’s global reputation as one of the hottest deepwater oil and gas plays on Earth. The Gulf of Mexico is responsible for a quarter of the 5.5 million barrels of oil produced daily in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy. And of the 1.4 million barrels produced daily in the Gulf, 1.1 million barrels comes from over 100 deep sea production platforms. The Interior Department predicts that by the end of the decade, deep sea production in the Gulf could reach nearly 2 million barrels a day.

See USCAN Oil Spill Page

Semi-submersible drilling platform

Source: The Economist

Though offshore oil production is dangerous – 165 people died when an offshore platform exploded off the coast of Scotland in 1998; 10 more people were killed in a drilling rig explosion off the coast of Brazil in 2001 – a kind of Titanic syndrome had set in with Gulf coast oil explorers. The high-tech, semi-submersible, nearly $1 billion floating drilling platforms that operated in the deep Gulf waters were seen as too big, too modern, too well-equipped to fail.

Moreover there is so much oil (and natural gas) beneath the deep Gulf bottomlands – 85.9 billion barrels of oil, according to several estimates – and so much money to be made at $70 to $100 a barrel, that downplaying the risks made economic and political sense. Federal drilling permits obtained by developers normally did not require extensive and time-consuming analysis of the environmental risks, the government has acknowledged.

On April 20, an explosion and fire aboard Transoceans’ Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, which was operating under contract to BP, killed 11 workers. The accident provided the latest unmistakable evidence of the workplace hazards of deep sea exploration. Then two days later, on Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, the Deepwater Horizon sank and simultaneously produced an oil slick that the government says is growing by about 5,000 barrels of oil daily.

America Awake?
By any measure, the Gulf spill has reawakened the nation and magnified the human, environmental, and political consequences of oil production, especially from such treacherous places as the deep ocean. But the spill has not yet made clear what, if anything, the nation is prepared to do in response.

Indeed, the Deepwater explosion and the spreading slick are apt metaphors for an era of striking domestic risks related to energy production and consumption and growing uncertainties about how to reduce them.

Not Santa Barbara, Not 1969
There is no longer much reasoned debate that America’s devotion to fossil fuel, and especially to oil, has contributed to dangerous energy insecurity, rising atmospheric concentrations of climate changing gases, increasing costs, decreasing incomes, and a ferocious national recession. Yet the national response is so different than the  January 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, which soaked the beaches with crude oil. That spill produced a momentous national that helped to launch Earth Day and a decade of policy making that cleared the skies and cleaned the waters.

In contrast the Deepwater spill, so far, has produced modest public concern nationally and little more than that.

President Obama on April 30 announced he would suspend his March 31 decision to open new areas to offshore exploration pending a full investigation of the Deepwater accident. In the Senate, where a climate and energy bill has been delayed because of partisan infighting, lawmakers debated whether the Gulf spill would 1) break or 2) cement the deadlock.

It is clear the United States needs a new energy policy. The devastating spill has heightened awareness on Capitol Hill to the dangers of U.S. dependence on oil. Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Bill Nelson of Florida held a news conference this week to alert their colleagues that including additional offshore oil exploration has no place in a comprehensive climate and energy bill.

Halting the Spill
In the Gulf, BP says it is moving as fast as it can to plug the well and on Wednesday the company announced that it had stemmed one of three leaks in the pipe that once attached the well to the Deepwater drilling platform. Fishing in the coastal waters, some of the most productive fishing grounds on the planet, has been suspended. Meanwhile the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida expressed concern about the expanding spill, which was drifting closer to their shores.

Production Data by Year
Deepwater Production
(WD > 1000 Ft)
Total GOM OCS Production % of Total Production
Year Oil, STB Gas, MCF Oil, STB Gas, MCF Oil Gas
1985 21,053,752 33,849,349 350,345,117 4,057,692,707 6.009 0.834
1986 19,077,066 36,900,361 355,542,244 4,043,350,172 5.365 0.912
1987 17,070,926 44,259,499 327,567,672 4,524,823,392 5.211 0.978
1988 12,984,552 38,228,499 301,206,145 4,577,391,080 4.310 0.835
1989 10,007,573 31,889,109 280,717,909 4,636,327,746 3.564 0.687
1990 12,141,988 30,502,933 274,588,473 4,907,774,159 4.421 0.621
1991 22,886,754 58,434,483 294,773,846 4,707,640,841 7.764 1.241
1992 37,295,127 87,256,174 304,865,294 4,650,566,185 12.23 1.876
1993 36,769,914 119,895,532 308,595,948 4,655,807,596 11.91 2.575
1994 41,803,238 159,473,125 314,096,027 4,823,738,315 13.30 3.306
1995 55,200,884 181,019,918 345,074,597 4,778,657,050 15.99 3.788
1996 72,213,069 278,233,940 368,869,292 5,076,875,432 19.57 5.480
1997 108,514,650 381,759,185 411,622,518 5,145,646,361 26.36 7.419
1998 159,232,680 560,475,922 444,286,882 5,041,746,574 35.84 11.11
1999 225,089,761 845,581,180 495,172,107 5,057,740,045 45.45 16.71
2000 271,144,316 998,859,653 523,029,835 4,958,172,377 51.84 20.14
2001 315,392,362 1,178,429,028 558,790,340 5,060,515,587 56.44 23.28
2002 348,566,124 1,286,974,486 567,887,406 4,526,660,570 61.37 28.43
2003 350,151,883 1,425,729,552 561,457,768 4,428,661,841 62.36 32.19
2004 347,916,489 1,396,450,720 535,313,731 4,005,649,257 64.99 34.86
2005 325,565,912 1,189,574,009 466,916,529 3,155,021,736 69.72 37.70
2006 341,286,543 1,093,900,026 472,034,405 2,921,947,061 72.30 37.43
2007 328,111,873 1,027,012,933 468,007,128 2,812,063,179 70.10 36.52
2008 310,628,395 997,860,793 421,221,179 2,328,093,003 73.74 42.86
2009 454,502,063 1,094,148,891 566,000,231 2,427,822,032 80.30 45.06
Deepwater Production Increase – Year to Year
Year % Increase, Oil % Increase, Gas
1985 to 1986 -9.3 9.01
1986 to 1987 -10. 19.9
1987 to 1988 -23. -13.
1988 to 1989 -22. -16.
1989 to 1990 21.3 -4.3
1990 to 1991 88.4 91.5
1991 to 1992 62.9 49.3
1992 to 1993 -1.4 37.4
1993 to 1994 13.6 33.0
1994 to 1995 32.0 13.5
1995 to 1996 30.8 53.7
1996 to 1997 50.2 37.2
1997 to 1998 46.7 46.8
1998 to 1999 41.3 50.8
1999 to 2000 20.4 18.1
2000 to 2001 16.3 17.9
2001 to 2002 10.5 9.21
2002 to 2003 0.45 10.7
2003 to 2004 -0.6 -2.0
2004 to 2005 -6.4 -14.
2005 to 2006 4.82 -8.0
2006 to 2007 -3.8 -6.1
2007 to 2008 -5.3 -2.8
2008 to 2009 46.3 9.64
Average (through 2008) 16.7 18.3

Source: Minerals Management Service

— Keith Schneider

A Miserable Week


A week that began with a political blow – the disruption of the bipartisan Senate team drawing up climate and energy legislation – ended in environmental disaster. A vicious oil spill, produced by the explosion and sinking last week of the Deep Horizon drilling rig, inundated the Gulf shoreline and threatened to wreck the aquatic diversity that makes the Louisiana coast one of the world’s most productive fisheries.

Twenty one years ago, as a reporter for the New York Times, I spent weeks in Alaska covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and years afterward reporting on its lingering ecological and economic damage. The Gulf spill is fortified by 5,000 barrels of leaking oil a day (at least that’s what was said on Friday though others say the amount is much greater)  and there is no end in sight. Despite its assurances in public testimony and television commercials, oil companies have no proven techniques to penetrate the ink-black waters and plug the source a mile beneath the surface. The gulf spill could become the most significant oil-related disaster in the nation’s history.

In every way conceivable the Gulf spill is a dismal display of the runaway risks for a nation devoted to petroleum. Oil spills, like blood that gushes from a severed artery, attract public attention and civic lament. But what most of America really cares about is that the national blood pressure gauge – the price of gasoline – doesn’t soar.

That’s why two years ago the chant of “drill baby drill” looked for a time to be enough of an energy policy to catapult John McCain to the White House. Just a month ago President Barack Obama, arguing that it was needed to secure domestic energy needs, lifted the federal moratorium on offshore drilling and opened huge expanses of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to new exploration.

Yesterday, the administration put that decision in abeyance pending federal inspections of existing offshore Gulf rigs and a clearer understanding of how the spill affects public attitudes and policy. And Sunday, the president is scheduled to fly to Louisiana to view the expanding mess for himself.

Indeed, during a week that the EPA made public a new assessment of the sweeping effects of a warming atmosphere in the United States, and the nation’s first offshore wind farm received federal approval, the unanswered question is how much of an impression the Gulf spill will have on anything other than the wild creatures in its path.

The spill, dark and menacing and slow moving, is an apt metaphor for the pace and condition of America’s promised transition from fossil fuel to clean energy alternatives. Andrea Buffa, a writer at the Apollo Alliance, reported this week that some businesses are saying publicly that without federal climate and clean energy policies, more clean energy operations will move abroad to countries that are committed to clean energy. In an interview in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, said that if the United States doesn’t adopt clean energy policies, GE will have to go overseas. “We have to go where the action is,” he said.

By any measure of economic and environmental reason the spill should resonate with the public and with lawmakers. It should convince Senator Lindsey Graham to rejoin Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman in introducing a climate and energy bill fit for the 21st century. In an era of warming temperatures and stone cold inflexible politics, it may be the best outcome from such a miserable week.

— Keith Schneider