President’s Column – July 2010

Title: The Big Spill
Author: Jerry Cuzella
Publication: The Outcrop, July 2010, p. 6, 9, 13

With the tragic sinking of the Deepwater Horizon drill ship and resultant oil spill in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (GOM) on April 20-22, 2010, we are reminded of the inherent hazards that exist when venturing into the uncharted frontiers of offshore exploration in ultra-deep water. The continued flow of oil on the seabed from a damaged riser, caused by a dysfunctional blowout preventer, and the consequential oil plume is an image of extraordinary proportion. The story of this catastrophe and the resulting damages caused by this incident will continue to unfold for quite some time, and the Deepwater Horizon will become a benchmark in offshore disasters for many years to come. The amount of oil spilled has been judged to have exceeded that from the Exxon Valdez which until now was the worst spill in U.S. history. It is likely that this disaster will rival and surpass that of the Piper Alpha incident of July 6, 1988 that occurred in the North Sea offshore Scotland—presently in terms of loss of life and industry damage, it ranks as the world’s worst offshore oil and gas disaster. Whatever the outcome of the efforts to tackle this disaster in the GOM and whatever the measure of success, the image and public perception of the petroleum industry has taken a severe blow. With new discoveries and technological advances being made in deep water settings of the GOM these past few years and the announcement earlier this year that new offshore areas will be considered for leasing — this accident couldn’t have happened at a worse time. The story of the Deepwater Horizon continues to unfold, while the public anxiously waits for the superhero to come in and magically fix all of the problems. Nevertheless, the true heroes in this case are the scientists, engineers, technicians, volunteers, and workers using sophisticated equipment that will finally arrest the flow of oil and abate damages to sensitive coastlines and marshes.

Reporters of the likes of Ida Tarbell who relentlessly pursued Rockefeller for unethical monopolization of the domestic petroleum industry back in 1904-1911, have recently emerged in print and electronic media, firing salvos directed at the oil companies calling for limits and bans to offshore drilling, and further tarnishing the image of the petroleum industry. There is no question about it: the enormity of the disaster can’t be understated, the short and long term effects of environmental damage, loss of business and property, damage from human and wildlife exposure are expected to be of a massive scale. Unfortunately, memories of the tanker, Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 off the coast of Alaska, the 1969 spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, CA, and in 1976 when the Argo Merchant ran aground near Nantucket Island, MA have all sullied the reputation of a major U.S. industry from coast to coast and helped establish one that is in discord with that of a sustainable environment. Every human endeavor involves some risk, whether it’s landing a Mars rover or extracting oil and gas to fuel our civilization. Alarmingly, the Deepwater Horizon event is being compared to the Three Mile Island meltdown which spelled the end of nuclear power development in the U.S., a menacing analogy to say the least. Disasters make the news and are long remembered, but the accomplishments of the petroleum industry at the cutting-edge of technology which has been responsible for having transformed civilization, much to the better, receive little recognition and are taken for granted. What has happened as a result of this spill is that the public has become exposed to the true realities of oil and gas production, the complex technologies employed in the process, and the challenges of operating in difficult and extreme conditions.

Oil and politics have danced in a peculiar relationship since the days of John D. Rockefeller and the “Standard Oil Trust,” and ever since the oil and gas industry has never been too politically popular. The Deepwater Horizon accident has once again brought this relationship to the forefront in an emotionally charged visual. Everyone would agree that protection of human life and environmental safeguards that enable both protection and restoration of land and water should not be compromised, but a comment by the Secretary of the Interior: “We will keep our boot on their neck until the job gets done,” is a disturbing metaphor, and merely the bravado of classic political posturing (news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20100524/ts_nm/us_oil_rig_leak).

Promptly on the heels of the disaster, the recent decision to splinter the Minerals Management Service into three separate agencies, the suspension of offshore drilling, and deferral of offshore lease sales are all immediate reactions that have the color of a politically motivated response. Hofmeister (2010) introduces the concept of “political time” and “energy time;” the former is defined by two, four, and six year election cycles whereas “energy time” can be measured in decades. Decisions made in “energy time” are affected by lease terms, the process of assembling lease blocks, prospect evolutions, technology developments, permitting, and regulatory processes to name a few issues that the petroleum geologist are well familiar with. The time disconnect between the two factors is well illustrated in the fallout from the tragedy in the GOM. When it comes to energy, the public is fundamentally misled by sound bites crafted with respect to “political time” that has overruled the long-term energy requirements of tomorrow and common sense.

Affordable energy, with oil at the top of the list, is an integral part of our complex economy and is essential for national security, and our way of life. With approximately 40% of the energy consumed in the U.S. coming from oil, it is clear that the U.S. runs on oil and will do so for the foreseeable future. Approximately half of U.S. domestic oil production comes from the GOM, with other promising targets located elsewhere off of America’s coasts yet to be explored. Clearly these regions must remain as part of the nation’s energy portfolio; their exclusion would be detrimental to the nation’s domestic energy supply. Disappointingly, oil companies have failed to put a human face on an industry which people can relate to and in which they may tell their stories to the public.

Several years ago, the RMAG in conjunction with the USGS and other geological societies in the metro area, formed a “Speaker’s Bureau.” It consisted of a group of volunteers who would go out and speak to schools at the request of teachers. In the past few years, the program has been largely dormant. Occasionally a request may come in to the RMAG office from a teacher for a geologist to visit their classroom and speak to their students. For these few requests, luckily, someone has stepped forward to fulfill this need, but a much more robust program is surely needed. It’s time to start to recruit volunteers and planning a bureau, and to advertise to local school districts of this type of service that RMAG can provide to the community. Geoscientists are accustomed to making oral presentations, be it before management or in technical programs. Therefore, a 45-minute presentation before a group of young students in a classroom should not be too intimidating. It is an opportunity to present before young minds the importance that the geosciences play in our daily lives. If you’re worried about “props” or what to say it’s easier than you think. Study sets of rocks and minerals accompanied with identification and classification exercises were put together by a grant from Conoco-Phillips and are available for check-out from the RMAG office. There are two such collections which have individual study sets for a typical classroom. Or, you may assemble your own collection of materials and bring them to the classroom as well. Topics can vary from something in line with the teacher’s current curriculum or a topic you may be more familiar with. If you are interested in becoming involved in this worthwhile mission, please contact the RMAG office. Participating in this program will be a memorable and valuable experience.


Reference

Hofmeister, John, 2010, Why we hate the oil companies: straight talk from an energy insider: New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 249 p.

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