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Informed Comment

'This Scares Everybody' Says BP: Top Kill Fails, Imperils Gulf; 'There Are No Solar Spills'

British Petroleum's attempt to plug the petroleum gusher a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico through a "top kill," pumping mud into the oil pipeline in hopes of plugging it up, has failed, according to Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles.

The LAT quotes him as saying, chillingly, at a news conference Saturday in Robert, LA, "After three full days, we have been unable to overcome the flow from the well, so we now believe it is time to move on to another option . . . This scares everybody - the fact that we can't make this well stop flowing or the fact that we haven't succeeded so far."

Worse, the best estimates of independent scientists for the amount of petroleum being released daily is now north, possibly well north, of 25,000 barrels a day.

To put this rate in perspective, it should be noted that oil companies routinely invest substantial resources to get fields going in places such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Iraqi Kurdistan that pump 7,000 to 15,000 barrels of petroleum a day.

Every 1000 Americans consume roughly 68 barrels a day of petroleum. This statistic means that what is gushing up from the BP well equals the daily amount of oil used by 367,000 Americans per day, that is, by cities the size of St. Louis or Minneapolis. Imagine all the cars and trucks filling up in such major cities every day, and the buildings using heating oil, and imagine taking all that oil and gasoline and dumping it in the Gulf of Mexico. Every day.

Although spectacular oil spills of this magnitude are relatively rare, pumping petroleum out of the ground or sea and transporting it routinely results in spills that damage the marine environment. Americans could learn a lot from the problems that beset the Persian-Arabian Gulf, where nearly two-thirds of the world's known petroleum reserves are found. In fact, BP or British Petroleum got its start as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company when William Knox D'Arcy discovered petroleum in the deserts of Iran in 1908. BP has its origins as a colonial institution, and has had a powerful impact on both Iran and the US. The other Gulf has suffered spills and contamination through the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, the Gulf War of 1990-91 and the Great Oil Spill that attended it, and many lesser catastophes ever since. Mysterious multiple deaths of marine wildlife are baffling Iranian scientists and alarming Iran's few environmentalists. Since President Obama said initially that he wanted to reach out to Iran, maybe cooperation on this issue would be a place to start.

I was amused at the Radio Free Europe's comments about about the politics of petroleum pollution in Iran: "The reaction of Iranian officials is notable, and arguably fits into a pattern among states with poor records of accountability. Reports on Persian Gulf pollution and threats to other natural areas suggest that local efforts provide the most effective response and that the environment is not a priority for the state generally. Environmental issues very rarely feature in the speeches of senior officials. Reports frequently suggest that low-level officials block potentially destructive projects or react to degradation at an initial and local stage, but do not always receive systematic backing from officials in Tehran. In Iran, when economic interests clash with the environment, money is given priority."

Couldn't we just replace "Iran" with "the United States" and "Tehran" with "Washington" in the above paragraph?

What will happen to this petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico? About 40% of it will evaporate. If a lot of it washes ashore, the ‘evaporation' will mean fumes harmful to wildlife and humans (people are already being sickened from exposure along the Louisiana coast).

Then, most of the rest will eventually be eaten by bacteria and released as carbon dioxide. The bacteria find it difficult to munch down when the oil is clumped together, and the point of the dispersant chemicals being applied to the massive oil slicks is to scatter the petroleum into smaller concentrations so the bacteria can get at it.

There is a real danger, however, of vast underwater plumes of petroleum forming, two of which have been discovered, which cannot be reached by dispersants and so will remain a threat to underwater ecosystems much longer, coating coral and destroying other ecosystems.

Even with regard to the dispersed petroleum, the bacteria can use up a lot of the sea's oxygen in the process of breaking it down. And, molecules will bind to oxygen, oxidizing. The petroleum has the potential of adding another set of ‘dead zones' to the one that already stretched into the Gulf from the mouth of the Mississippi, created by fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphates), which cause phytoplankton to increase like crazy, producing a "bloom" of algae that can deplete oxygen in the water. Likewise, when anaerobic bacteria eat the algae and multiply, that process further decreases the amount of oxygen in the water.

In essence, the petroleum that does not evaporate may have effects similar to the fertilizer effluent already spilling into the Gulf from the Mississippi basin, permanently killing off a lot of life in the Gulf. Thousands of tiny fish are already washing up dead on the Louisiana shore.

The much smaller Exxon-Valdez spill killed billions of salmon and herring eggs and as many as 250,000 seabirds. Only ten percent of the oil was recovered, with most of the rest infesting the underwater sand, being degraded by only 4% a year.

You can get a sense of the size of the primary oil slick versus your city here

All that is not to mention the oil contamination of the delicate marshes along the coast. Something like three-quarters of the shrimp and two-thirds of the oysters produced in the US come from these ecosystems along the Gulf coast, and they are likely to be destroyed for the medium term. Apparently you had a choice between offshore drilling and shrimp cocktails, and you chose offshore drilling.

For the fisherman living along the Gulf, this disaster pulverizes their livelihoods at a time when the Wall Street banks have already robbed us blind with their frauds and ponzi schemes, destroying millions of jobs.

And, this calamity is only the beginning. What stretches before us, as Michael Klare argues, is an age of extreme oil, with riskier and riskier projects that radically threaten the environment. Not to mention that all burning of petroleum of fuel is degrading the environment through global warming and climate change.

In the medium to long term, the fix for this mess is a transition to hybrid and electric vehicles, and to electricity generated by wind and solar. This transition was come more quickly (and it is very urgent) if the federal and state governments would stop subsidizing petroleum on a massive scale, making the public pay for the environmental costs of producing it while giving the petroleum companies substantial tax breaks. Not to mention that the federal superhighway program functions as a huge taxpayer subsidy to automobile and truck traffic, when it would be far less expensive and more ecologically sound to favor trains instead. I.e., we wuz robbed, and continue to be robbed, in order to subsidize corporations that are poisoning us.

In contrast to the fishermen's jobs being tragically lost in Louisiana, the tax breaks and incentives for green energy in the federal stimulus bill, if continued, could produce 200,000 new jobs in the solar field alone, and has already produced 17,000 such jobs. The Illinois legislature just produced a bill to jumpstart the move to solar in that state.

Legislation and tax incentives are key to green energy as a start-up industry facing hydrocarbon semi-monopolies that are already massively subsidized by the government and by existing energy and transportation infrastructure. We saw this phenomenon in Germany, which got ahead in the solar game in large part because the Green Party was in coalition with the SPD in the 1990s and shaped some crucial legislation favoring solar and wind.

Some 28,000 solar jobs could be created in North Carolina with the right legislation. As Elizabeth Ouzts of Environment North Carolina pointed out, "There are no solar spills."

And, exciting developments are taking place in Denmark and Germany with regard to offshore wind turbine power generation.

If there is a silver lining in the scary and depressing Great BP Gulf Catastrophe of 2010, it is that it may finally get state and federal legislators off their duffs and legislating sane energy policy for the health of the earth.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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