Page 1 of 2 BP-style horrors coming your
By Michael T Klare
On June 15, in their testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee,
the chief executives of America's leading oil companies argued that BP's
Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was an aberration - something
that would not have occurred with proper corporate oversight and will not
happen again once proper safeguards are put in place.
This is fallacious, if not an outright lie. The Deepwater Horizon explosion was
the inevitable result of a relentless effort to extract oil from ever deeper
and more hazardous locations. In fact, as long as the industry continues its
relentless, reckless pursuit of "extreme energy" - oil, natural gas, coal, and
from geologically, environmentally, and politically unsafe areas - more such
calamities are destined to occur.
At the onset of the modern industrial era, basic fuels were easy to obtain from
large, near-at-hand energy deposits in relatively safe and friendly locations.
The rise of the automobile and the spread of suburbia, for example, were made
possible by the availability of cheap and abundant oil from large reservoirs in
California, Texas, and Oklahoma, and from the shallow waters of the Gulf of
But these and equivalent deposits of coal, gas, and uranium have been depleted.
This means the survival of our energy-centric civilization increasingly relies
on supplies obtained from risky locations - deep underground, far at sea, north
of the Arctic circle, in complex geological formations, or in unsafe political
environments. That guarantees the equivalent of two, three, four, or more Gulf
oilspill style disasters in our energy future.
Back in 2005, the CEO of Chevron, David O'Reilly, put the situation about as
bluntly as an oil executive could. "One thing is clear," he said. "The era of
easy oil is over. Demand is soaring like never before ... At the same time,
many of the world's oil and gas fields are maturing. And new energy discoveries
are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract,
physically, economically, and even politically."
O'Reilly promised then that his firm, like the other energy giants, would do
whatever it took to secure this "difficult energy" to satisfy rising global
demand. He proved to be a man of his word. As a result, BP, Chevron, Exxon, and
the rest of the energy giants launched a drive to obtain traditional fuels from
hazardous locations, setting the stage for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and
those sure to follow. As long as the industry stays on this course, rather than
undertaking the transition to an alternative energy future, more such
catastrophes are inevitable, no matter how sophisticated the technology or
scrupulous the oversight.
The only question is: what will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster look like
(other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)? The choices are many, but here
are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale energy calamities. None of
these is inevitable, but each has a plausible basis in fact.
Scenario 1: Newfoundland - Hibernia Platform Destroyed by Iceberg:
Approximately 190 miles (300 kilometers) off the coast of Newfoundland in what
locals call "Iceberg Alley" sits the Hibernia oil platform, the world's largest
offshore drilling facility. Built at a cost of some US$5 billion, Hibernia
consists of a 37,000-tonne "topsides" facility mounted on a 600,000-tonne
steel-and-concrete gravity base structure (GBS) resting on the ocean floor,
some 260 feet (80 meters) below the surface. This mammoth facility, normally
manned by 185 crew members, produces about 135,000 barrels of oil per day. Four
companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, Murphy Oil, and Statoil) plus the government of
Canada participate in the joint venture established to operate the platform.
The Hibernia platform is reinforced to withstand a direct impact by one of the
icebergs that regularly sail through this stretch of water, located just a few
hundred miles from where the Titanic infamously hit an iceberg and sank
in 1912. Sixteen giant steel ribs protrude from the GBS, positioned in such a
way as to absorb the blow of an iceberg and distribute it over the entire
structure. However, the GBS itself is hollow, and contains a storage container
for 1.3 million barrels of crude oil - about five times the amount released in
the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.
The owners of the Hibernia platform insist that the design will withstand a
blow from even the largest iceberg. As global warming advances and the
Greenland glaciers melt, however, massive chunks of ice will be sent floating
into the North Atlantic on a path past Hibernia. Add increased storm activity
(another effect of global warming) to an increase in iceberg frequency and you
have a formula for overwhelming the Hibernia's defenses.
Here's the scenario: It's the stormy winter of 2018, not an uncommon situation
in the North Atlantic at that time of year. Winds exceed 80 miles per hour
(130km per hour), visibility is zilch, and iceberg-spotter planes are grounded.
Towering waves rise to heights of 50 feet or more, leaving harbor-bound the
giant tugs the Hibernia's owners use to nudge icebergs from the platform's
path. Evacuation of the crew by ship or helicopter is impossible.
Without warning, a gigantic, storm-propelled iceberg strikes the Hibernia,
rupturing the GBS and spilling more than one million barrels of oil into rough
waters. The topside facility is severed from the base structure and plunges
into the ocean, killing all 185 crew members. Every connection to the undersea
wells is ruptured, and 135,000 barrels of oil start flowing into the Atlantic
every day (approximately twice the amount now coming from the BP leak in the
Gulf of Mexico). The area is impossible to reach by plane or ship in the
constant bad weather, meaning emergency repairs can't be undertaken for weeks -
not until at least five million additional barrels of oil have poured into the
ocean. As a result, one of the world's most prolific fishing grounds - the
Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Cape Cod - is thoroughly
Does this sound extreme? Think again. On February 15, 1982, a giant drillship,
the Ocean Ranger (the "Ocean Danger" to its habitues), was operating in the
very spot Hibernia now occupies when it was struck by 50-foot waves in a storm
and sank, taking the lives of 84 crew members. Because no drilling was under
way at the time, there were no environmental consequences, but the loss of the
Ocean Ranger - a vessel very much like the Deepwater Horizon - should be a
reminder of just how vulnerable otherwise strong structures can be to the North
Atlantic's winter fury.
Scenario 2: Nigeria - America's Oil Quagmire: Nigeria is now
America's fifth leading supplier of oil (after Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia,
and Venezuela). Long worried about the possibility that political turmoil in
the Middle East might diminish the oil flow from Saudi Arabia just as Mexico's
major fields were reaching a state of depletion, American officials have worked
hard to increase Nigerian imports.
However, most of that country's oil comes from the troubled Niger Delta region,
whose impoverished residents receive few benefits but all of the environmental
damage from the oil extraction there. As a result, they have taken up arms in a
bid for a greater share of the revenues the Nigerian government collects from
the foreign energy companies doing the drilling. Leading this drive is the
Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), a ragtag guerrilla
group that has demonstrated remarkable success in disrupting oil company
The US Department of Energy (DoE) rates Nigeria's innate oil-production
capacity at about 2.7 million barrels per day. Thanks to insurgent activity in
the Delta, however, actual output has fallen significantly below this. "Since
December 2005, Nigeria has experienced increased pipeline vandalism,
kidnappings, and militant takeovers of oil facilities in the Niger Delta," the
department reported in May 2009. "[K]idnappings of oil workers for ransom are
common and security concerns have led some oil services firms to pull out of
Washington views the insurgency as a threat to America's "energy security," and
so a reason for aiding the Nigerian military. "Disruption of supply from
Nigeria would represent a major blow to US oil security," the State Department
noted in 2006. In August 2009, on a visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton promised even more military aid for oil protection purposes.
Here, then, is scenario #2: It's 2013. The delta insurgency has only grown,
driving Nigeria's oil output down to a third of its capacity. Global oil demand
is substantially higher and rising, while production slips everywhere. Gasoline
prices have reached $5 per gallon in the US with no end in sight, and the
economy seems headed toward yet another deep recession.
The barely functioning civilian government in Abuja, the capital, is overthrown
by a Muslim-dominated military junta that promises to impose order and restore
the oil flow in the Delta. Some Christian elements of the military promptly
defect, joining MEND. Oil facilities across the country are suddenly under
attack; oil pipelines are bombed, while foreign oil workers are kidnapped or
killed in record numbers. The foreign oil companies running the show begin to
shut down operations. Global oil prices go through the roof.
When a dozen American oil workers are executed and a like number held hostage
by a newly announced rebel group, the president addresses the nation from the
Oval Office, declares that US energy security is at risk, and sends 20,000
Marines and Army troops into the delta to join the Special Operations forces
already there. Major port facilities are quickly secured, but the American
expeditionary force soon finds itself literally in an oil quagmire, an almost
unimaginable landscape of oil spills in which they find themselves fighting a
set of interlocked insurgencies that show no sign of fading. Casualties rise as
they attempt to protect far-flung pipelines in an impenetrable swamp not unlike
the Mekong Delta of Vietnam War fame.