The Coming Era of Energy Disasters
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
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 Deep 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 uranium obtained 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 Mexico. 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-oil-spill-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. And he proved 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 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 $5 billion, Hibernia consists of a 37,000-ton "topsides" facility mounted on a 600,000-ton steel-and-concrete gravity base structure (GBS) resting on the ocean floor, some 260 feet 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 eighty miles per hour, visibility is zilch, and iceberg-spotter planes are grounded. Towering waves rise to heights of fifty 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 5 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 poisoned.
Does this sound extreme? Think again. On February 15, 1982, a giant drillship, the Ocean Ranger (the "Ocean Danger" to its habitués), was operating in the very spot Hibernia now occupies when it was struck by fifty-foot waves in a storm and sank, taking the lives of eighty-four 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 operations.
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. "Kidnappings of oil workers for ransom are common and security concerns have led some oil services firms to pull out of the country."
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 United States 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.
Sound implausible? Consider this: in May 2008, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Command conducted a crisis simulation at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, that involved precisely such a scenario, also set in 2013. The simulation, "Unified Quest 2008," was linked to the formation of the US Africa Command (Africom), the new combat organization established by President Bush in February 2007 to oversee American military operations in Africa. An oil-related crisis in Nigeria, it was suggested, represented one of the more likely scenarios for intervention by US forces assigned to Africom. Although the exercise did not explicitly endorse a military move of this sort, it left little doubt that such a response would be Washington's only practical choice.