…From Peter Littlewood, Director of YPTE
The massive oil slick off Louisiana in the USA has been in the news every day since the Deepwater Horizon, the oil exploration rig operated by Transocean but leased by BP exploded catastrophically in the Gulf of Mexico two weeks ago. The oil slick it has created now covers thousands of square miles of ocean. Even now, with the news that BP yesterday managed to seal off one of the three leaks, oil is still leaking into the sea at a rate of 800,000 litres a day. Another giant iron funnel is on its way to plug a second leak today.
There is no doubt that the scale of the potential environmental disaster is immense, though so far the oil has not significantly impacted the Louisiana coastline. If it does wash ashore, the scale of the devastation could be bigger than anything we’ve seen before. The cost of the cleanup operation is also likely to be staggering, but it is reassuring to see how quickly engineers have worked to seal off the leak, bearing in mind the adverse weather conditions they have faced.
It has been easy for the media to point the finger at oil companies, and BP is certainly bearing the brunt of this at the moment, especially in the US, but what often goes unnoticed are the immense efforts that oil producers go to in order to ensure that such polluting incidents don’t happen. Oil exploration is a dangerous business, but oil companies don’t set out to cause accidents like this. Indeed, eleven workers lost their lives on the Deepwater Explorer – a tragic consequence of drilling in such testing conditions, fifty miles offshore at a sea depth of around 5,000 feet.
Governor Schwarzenegger of California has vowed that offshore oil exploration will not happen off his state’s coast. A commendable stand to take for a known lover of fast and gas-guzzling cars (though he has given up his collection of 10mpg Hummers). He can no doubt afford to convert his collection of gas-guzzlers to the latest hybrid technology, so it won’t matter to him. Or perhaps he’ll just import oil from elsewhere in the US, until it runs out. For those of us with rather less spare cash, unfortunately the internal combustion engine is still pretty much our only option. I would love to drive a car that had minimal impact on the environment, and indeed my everyday car gets more than 60 miles to the gallon, but a reality of modern living is that we still need oil-powered transport.
It’s easy for us all to see oil companies as the enemy, but in fact, disasters like this are our collective responsibility. Oil companies search for oil, often in incredibly difficult conditions, because they’re in business to make money – as are all businesses. They know there’s a market for the oil they produce and that market continues to grow. It is unquestionable that we all have a high dependency on oil in our lives. Unless we walk or cycle everywhere, then chances are we’re using transport that uses oil, whether we choose a car, motorcycle, bus, train or plane. Some transport options are better than others, but all of them use oil. If we drive on a road, the bitumen that binds the surface together comes from oil. If you use anything made from plastic (and who doesn’t?) then that plastic has been made using oil. So whilst it’s the oil companies that produce the oil and occasionally cause pollution incidents like this one, we are all responsible for creating the demand for oil which makes such accidents possible,
Things will have to change. At some point soon, possibly within the next few years, the global annual demand for oil will reach a level which exceeds annual production -’peak oil’. The oil companies all know this and are investing huge sums, not only in discovering new oil fields for the future but also in the development of alternative energy technologies.
But we need to start making a move away from carbon-based power now. We know that eventually, carbon-based fuels – oil, gas and coal - will run out. Burning them releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Whether or not you believe climate change is being influenced by human actions, it stands to reason that releasing a warming gas into the atmosphere deliberately is not a good thing and that any sensible person would want to reduce their output of carbon dioxide.
The new, renewable technologies are getting cheaper, but they’re still too expensive for us all to consider. What we need to arrive at – and soon – is a time when renewable energies are widely and cheaply available. Only then will we be able to move away from oil-powered living and only then will environmental disasters like the one in Louisiana be consigned to history.