Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This Oil Spill, too, Shall Pass

You have been warned. This is a politically incorrect article.

In 1999, I read Jane Goodall's book, Reason for Hope, which took the optimistic view that, in spite of human activity, our beautiful blue planet is very resilient. She lists nature's resiliency as her third reason for hope, the others being the human brain, the indomitable human spirit, and the determination of young people.

From the book:

I have visited Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb that ended World War II. Scientists had predicted that nothing could grow there for at least 30 years. But, amazingly, greenery grew very quickly. One sapling actually managed to survive the bombing, and today it is a large tree, with great cracks and fissures, all black inside; but that tree still produces leaves. I carry one of those leaves with me as a powerful symbol of hope. I have seen such renewals time and again, including animal species brought back from the brink of extinction.

Might Goodall's example serve as an example for our current situation? My guess is, yes. This planet is quite comfortable with experiencing its very own natural disasters. It deals with them gracefully and patiently as they appear. What seems violent, unconscionable, and unnatural to man is just the way of life to this aging orb upon which we live. Mainland volcanic eruptions, seafloor volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, solar activity, global warming and cooling phases are all Gaia's way of life as a living, breathing, belching, active planet living a participatory life in her very own solar system home, the Milky Way.

We humans and our effects upon our planet are, by nature, evolutionary. We are supposedly entering Earth's sixth major extinction phase, this one, at least partially, due to human interference. Two-hundred-fifty million years ago, perhaps due to volcanic activity, 95 percent of all marine life and nearly all land life became extinct. The beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago has accelerated this most recent phase.

Oil is not foreign to Gaia, but a part of her, a natural substance. Ocean floors normally experience ongoing oil leaks and volcanic eruptions. It is difficult to prove or disprove the numbers floating around about natural leak rates and oil industry spill statistics. Barry Ritholtz cited Dr. Roy Spencer's graph showing that the 1991-2 Gulf war time period resulted in 500 million gallons of dumped and spilled oil, and says that 250 million gallons of oil is spilled annually from global rigs and tankers. An Alaskan reporter claims that a billion gallons of oil are swallowed by our oceans each year. This would agree with Dagmar Schmidt Etkin's figures. WWII no doubt bled a great deal of oil to sea. So far, though estimates vary widely, perhaps 50 million gallons have leaked from this Deepwater Horizon event.

On May 13th, NPR did an interview of Ken Ringle, a former Washington-Post reporter who covered the Tobago spill in 1979.

From the transcript, In Context, BP Oil Spill 'Isn't The Apocalypse':

...let me explain a couple of facts. The problem with an oil spill is not just the amount of oil that's spilt. It's where it's spilt. And it's the kind of oil that's spilt.

In the case of the Trinidad and Tobago spill, it was in the tropics, it was in July. It was - there was a lot of sun. And the water was very warm. The air was very warm. The trade winds were blowing. And about 50 percent of the oil spill simply evaporated, and the rest was largely consumed by oil-eating microbes, which attack oil because it's a natural substance.

And light Arabian crude, which was cargo of these ships, is the most volatile and the most unstable of all crude oil pumped from the earth, so more of that evaporates. Now that evaporation is not an entirely harmless process. I mean, it's greenhouse houses and so forth that go off. But it leaves a lot less there to coat birds.

The heaviest parts of the oil, paraffins and asphalt and things like that, become tar balls and they sink to the bottom of the oceans, which is what happened there. But by the time the oil spill was stretching toward Grenada, one of the experts that I interviewed estimated that it was such a thin sheen, it was about what your wife finds in the sink when she's washed the salad bowl, he said.

There are some important conditions that need considered when discussing the outcome of this spill when attempting to make comparisons to other spills such as the Alaskan Valdez spill. One, the water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are many degrees warmer than those of the Exxon-Valdez spill, promoting degeneration of the material by microbes and through evaporation. Two, the kind of oil spilled is lighter crude meaning it will evaporate more quickly, especially in the Gulf's warmer temperatures of air and water. Further, wave action breaks apart the oil and the already adaptive, opportunistic hydro-carbon eating bacteria feast upon the oil.

From the June 6 Washington-Post article, In gulf oil spill's long reach, ecological damage could last decades:

Ecosystems can survive and eventually recover from very large oil spills, even ones that are Ixtoc-sized. In most spills, the volatile compounds evaporate. The sun breaks down others. Some compounds are dissolved in water. Microbes consume the simpler, "straight chain" hydrocarbons -- and the warmer it is, the more they eat. The gulf spill has climate in its favor. Scientists agree: Horrible as the spill may be, it's not going to turn the Gulf of Mexico into another Dead Sea."..."The degradation of oil slows over the years. The microbes move on, as the large and complex compounds that remain, known as the asphaltenes, are too hard to digest. What's left tends to be dense, tar-like, largely inert and attractive only to people who like to pave roads.

Last week, a video by NCAR of their oil spill computer model simulation was widely circulated by the press. When addressing the question of oil reaching European shores, NCAR responded:

"We have been asked if and when remnants of the spill could reach the European coastlines,” says Martin Visbeck, a member of the research team with IFM-GEOMAR, University of Kiel, Germany. "Our assumption is that the enormous lateral mixing in the ocean together with the biological disintegration of the oil should reduce the pollution to levels below harmful concentrations. But we would like to have this backed up by numbers from some of the best ocean models.”

By no means do I wish to dismiss what has happened with this oil spill, and the sheer magnitude of it frightens us all, plus it's not over, yet. But, we are reacting to it with disapproving conviction while we sit idly by watching many of our other ongoing ecological disasters with passivity. We continue to fill our gas tanks with gasoline. We remain uninvolved in politics. We are self-righteous in our attitude, but damning in our behavior.

There are many absurdities in our perspective. The Gulf of Mexico already had an 8,000 square mile hypoxic dead zone due to industrial agricultural run off from which we avert our attention daily. This gets worse each year due to our U.S. agribusiness government policy. And by channelizing the rivers feeding into that same dead zone, we've destroyed those river ecosystems, too. Where's our outrage? Where is our Presidential news conference coverage on this? Ninty-eight percent of our former grasslands ecosystems of the topsoil rich Great Plains states in the U.S. have been wiped out. Decimated. Who cares about that?

When it happens suddenly we get angry. When it happens slowly, we sit idly by.

Want to hear more? Fifty percent of our population now lives along the coastal areas of the U.S. and these areas continue to gain population at the highest rates. Yet, we can turn our backs on the issues involved such as destruction of wetlands, habitats, and ecosystems that were there before "us" and our concrete and our cars which now inhabit these spaces.

What about tar sands? Now, in 2010, tar sands have become the U.S.'s largest source of oil. Large scale environmental destruction of the Canadian land area involved, respective green-house emissions, water use, and power used to extract the oil are easy for us to ignore.

Then, there are those plastic floating islands in our oceans. Out of site. Out of mind. Plus the taboo subject of overpopulation. Politically incorrect, that one, too. The Amazon? The Rainforest? Biofuels? Over-consumption? The list could go on and on.

And that's not all. Directly related to this spill, another absurdity is our sick relationship with oil. We crave it. We use it like entitled spoiled brats. We expect it to be cheap. But we hate its extraction. We hate the companies that do the challenging, life-risking work. And we never want any of it to happen in our own backyards. The fact is, if we wish to criticize anyone we need to criticize ourselves. How about contacting our Congressional leaders to increase the MPG requirements for our fleet of vehicles? Or, ask for railroad infrastructure? Or, live a lifestyle without a car?

We feel good about ourselves when we can agree on something and point our fingers at someone else we judge to be bad. In this case, we have a knee-jerk reaction of hypocritical outrage. The MSM feeds upon our emotional frenzy with pleasure.

For some straight-forward statements from a big-oil spokesperson, read Christophe de Margerie: 'It is not oil or the environment, it's oil and the environment' from The Independent.

From Mr. de Margerie:

...Realism means facing up to the fact that oil may be a dirty business, but it is unavoidable. "The world is desperate for energy," he says. "That doesn't mean we are against a reduction in consumption, or that we are against producing cleaner products, or that we are not part of [the] fight against climate change."

He dismisses environmental arguments as "stupid" – not because the environment is not a concern, but because the us-and-them dynamic is a distraction from the more nuanced discussion needed about global energy demands. "It is not oil or the environment, it is oil and the environment," he says with feeling. "We are living in the same world. We are not enemies. We have to be frank – but frank in a nice way – so people understand the impact of what they are deciding."

Vast sums of money are being spent on developing alternatives to fossil fuels. For Total, the focus is on solar, biomass, and carbon capture and storage technology to clean up coal-fired power production. The group is also moving into the nuclear sector, although a recent bid in the United Arab Emirates was beaten by the South Koreans.

But nothing will be a substitute for oil. Fossil fuels will not be enough on their own, it will only be the combination that will make it. We are always on the verge of having something like this spill to face.

Many lives, animals, livelihoods, marshes, and waters have been decimated by this oil extraction disaster. It is a major economic disaster, too. We have become a less energy-secure nation because of this spill. And this won't be the last environmental disaster related to human desperation for our junkie-like addiction to fossil fuels. If, in fact, forty percent of our future oil supply is to come from off shore drilling, you can be sure off-shore drilling will continue. Until it can't.

Gaia is familiar with our human ways. Some day she shall be free of our interference.

Additional reference articles from Scientific American:

1) Slick Solution: How Microbes Will Clean Up the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (Scientific American) : The natural world is replete with a host of organisms that combine as a community to decompose oil—and no single microbe, no matter how genetically enhanced, has proved better than this natural defense. "Every ocean we look at, from the Antarctic to the Arctic, there are oil-degrading bacteria," says Atlas, who evaluated genetically engineered microbes and other cleanup ideas in the wake of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. "Petroleum has thousands of compounds. It's complex and the.....

2) How Long Will the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill Last? (Scientific American) :
...Once the oil reaches the surface, it begins to evaporate, losing as much as 20 to 40 percent of the original hydrocarbons. "Evaporation is good; it selectively removes a lot of compounds we'd rather not have in the water," like PAHs, Reddy notes. It also emulsifies, forming the now ubiquitous mousse—a frothy mix of hydrocarbons and water—or clumps into so-called tar balls, like those found on the shore.......