In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—wait, can we call it a gush? spill is too polite—Obama put a moratorium on new drilling leases, Calif. Gov. Schwarzenegger reversed his support for the plan to allow new drilling into the Tranquillon Ridge formation off the coast of Santa Barbara and the fishing, shipping and energy industries of the Gulf Coast are all waiting for the brunt of the fallout due to this massive accident.
But don’t expect this to appreciably reverse the course of oil exploration, overall, says David Hughes, a geoscientist, energy consultant and fossil fuels fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.
“We’re hell-bent on growth, and we’re going to need a lot of hydrocarbons to build whatever comes next,” he says. Even making the turbines needed for wind power requires massive amounts of fossil fuels. “There’s no chance the energy we get from renewables will even come close to [energy from] hydrocarbons, so we need to realize how precious they are and use them to build a life boat.”
So precious is oil, energy companies are drilling ever deeper for the black gold. “The depth of the Deepwater Horizon drill is not the norm, but there are rigs that go deeper,” says Hughes. And a number of drills are in the works that will go way deeper, including the Petrobras project off the coast of Brazil, which will plunge more than 20,000 feet below the sea floor (that’s as deep as Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America, is tall).
So this begs the question: how likely are we to see repeats of massive oil gushes like Deepwater Horizon? “There is no way to reduce the risk to zero,” says Hughes. “As a geoscientist, having looked at Mother Nature, she is really unknowable, down to the last detail, no matter what people say.”
However, there were precautions, such as remote shut offs, that were not in place at Deepwater Horizon that could be used on other drills, he notes. “[Deepwater Horizon] was a huge gamble and a huge loss and will cost billions to clean up, so there will be people pulling all the stops to lower the risks [going forward],” says Hughes. “I don’t think you can prevent it, but you can lower the risks.”
Ironically, the Offshore Technology Conference is taking place right now in Houston, Texas, and Offshore magazine has been posting lots of coverage of the spill and recovery response. This video has the most telling (and disturbing) images of the spill that I’ve seen.
In fact, if you want the drilling industry’s perspective, Offshore has a pretty deep well—ha!—of stories. Deepwater drilling is the big focus these days…basically because, outside of tar sands, it represents the new frontier of oil exploration—or, more accurately, the last frontier, since we’ve sucked the easier options dry already.
Deepwater Horizon less lethal that others
As bad as the Deepwater Horizon incident is, it presently rates below both the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and the Union Well oil rig explosion off Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969, in terms of oil spilled. That said, the Deepwater Horizon story is still unfolding, and the oil will probably continue gushing for many weeks.
There is one favorable factor at play in the Gulf Coast, Hughes notes. The high temperature of the Gulf Coast waters will allow for faster decomposition of the oil, relative to how long the oil would linger in waterways closer to the poles. On the other hand, there’s an unpredictable undersea current that might spread the spill into the Eastern Seaboard and the Florida Keys.