What We Do In The Dark

Almost everything about fossil fuels, by definition, happens in the dark. The organisms that form coal, gas and oil form in the dark; they are extracted from deep dark places that are under water, under mountains, beneath broad plains. From well to tank, most oil never sees the light of day unless there’s a leak, or a spill.

And then, by the time we find it, damage has already been done.

All paintings - oil on canvas Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

All paintings – oil on canvas
Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

Back in 2013, the one of the largest on-land spills in the United States took place beneath a remote piece of crop land near Tioga, North Dakota. It took several days for the farmer who owned the property to discover the spill and then report it. It took several more days to stop the spill, which was due to a leaking pipe. And it took another week or so for the authorities to report the spill to the press. The spill was estimated at 865,000 gallons (20,000 barrels).

That spill necessitated a clean-up effort that is still ongoing. The most recent cost estimate I could find online put the cost at $42 million – and that was over a year ago, when approximately one-third of the spill had been removed. From the most recent article I could find on the spill, on Oil Price.com: “The 2013 spill contaminated around 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site grew to 35 acres to accommodate excavated soil stockpiles from digging 50 feet deep and then baking hydrocarbons out of the soil.” The Oil Price article was actually on another, more recent spill, that of 17,000 gallons (400 barrels) of oil and 120,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastewater near Marmath.

Overall, there have been over 300 oil spills in North Dakota alone in less than two years, most of them unreported. And that doesn’t include the Dec. 5 spill into the Ash Coulee Creek of 176,000 gallons (4100 barrels) approximately 150 miles from where Standing Rock protesters have been demonstrating against an oil pipeline they say will endanger their water source.

North Dakota can stand in here as a microcosm of oil-drilling locations around the world.

In general, oil spills are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest where there’s no one to hear it – if there’s no one around to witness a spill, then as far as authorities and oil companies are concerned, it might as well not have happened. Compiling a global list of incidents in which oil escapes its pipelines, even just the known offshore and onshore spills, would be a virtually impossible task, even if oil companies were ready and willing to expose the underbelly of the business.

This opacity when it comes to the collateral damage of our oil dependency extends to other aspects of the oil industry, from the funding of climate change skeptics through ‘dark money’ to the fighting of environmental regulations around the world.

So, what to make of the nomination of an oil company chief to the United States’ highest diplomatic post, that of Secretary of State, key advisor on foreign policy and fourth in line to the Presidency? Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (largest U.S. oil company by revenue), is undoubtedly an extremely able individual, manager and businessman. He is also the person who said, just a couple of months before the big spill in North Dakota, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers? (…) My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do (…) The rest is risk management.”

The question is, where does the management begin, and where does it end? How much of this management will truly be brought to light?

Collateral Damage

Deepwater Horizon oil spill – May 24, 2010
Image: NASA / Wikimedia Commons

Three years ago, one of the largest oil spills in North American history occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a massive disaster – loss of human life, oil spewing into the Gulf unhindered for almost three months, with an estimated 209 million gallons of oil entering Gulf waters.

Within a year, many in the US and state governments commented that in spite of the severity of the accident, due to clean-up efforts and dispersion, Gulf waters didn’t look as bad as expected. Certainly, some of this was part of a good public relations effort to draw tourism back to the area.

Part of the reason the waters looked better than they might have was due to the use of Corexit, a line of chemical dispersants, by BP. Nineteen months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, a scientific study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution found that crude oil becomes 52 times more toxic when combined with Corexit.

From an April issue of Newsweek: “(A)pplying Corexit enabled BP to mask the fact that a much larger amount of oil was actually leaking into the gulf. “Like any good magician, the oil industry has learned that if you can’t see something that was there, it must have ‘disappeared,’” Scott Porter, a scientist and deep-sea diver who consults for oil companies and oystermen, says in the GAP report. “Oil companies have also learned that, in the public mind, ‘out of sight equals out of mind.’ Therefore, they have chosen crude oil dispersants as the primary tool for handling large marine oil spills.”

1000 days later Source: MississippiRiverDelta.org

1000 days later
Source: MississippiRiverDelta.org

Again, from Newsweek: “Nor has the BP oil disaster triggered the kind of changes in law and public priorities one might have expected. “Not much has actually changed,” says Mark Davis of Tulane. “It reflects just how wedded our country is to keeping the Gulf of Mexico producing oil and bringing it to our shores as cheaply as possible. Going forward, no one should assume that just because something really bad happened we’re going to manage oil and gas production with greater sensitivity and wisdom. That will only happen if people get involved and compel both the industry and the government to be more diligent.”

However bad the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster has been for the Gulf of Mexico, at least it got some media coverage. It was a large, single event that attracted attention due to the economic importance of its location. Oil leakage is a part of oil exploitation in its current form.

One need only look at parts of the Amazon, or Nigeria, to see what kind of ongoing ecological impact can be considered ‘collateral damage’ without inciting any collective outrage or action. The price of using oil isn’t just in our atmosphere and climate change.

Calling the unintended loss of oil into the environment a ‘spill’ or a ‘leak’ makes it sound like something that can be cleaned away, like a kitchen table soiled by spilled juice. Holding the oil companies accountable is only the beginning of the equation towards safer oil exploitation.


Salon.com article – The Gulf Coast may never recover by Maureen Nandini Mitra

Summit County Voice article – Environment: Study finds lingering impacts from Gulf oil spill by Bob Berwyn

Sticky Solutions

Map: HuffingtonPost

Canadian tar sand oil has been touted, along with natural gas, as one of the primary means of gaining energy independence in North America. I was dismayed when I heard this, not because I don’t want North America to be energy independent, but because this independence will come at the price of continued use of fossil-based fuels, as well as making vast infrastructure investments into a fuel system most agree is both outdated and dangerous.

The billions spent exploiting tar sands for oil are billions that won’t be spent on increased development of renewables and supporting infrastructures.

James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who alerted the world to the dangers of global warming almost 30 years ago, has warned that conventional oil, gas and coal reserves already have a level of carbon stored in them which would, if burned, cause further dangerous levels of global warming.

In a speech before the Environmental Audit Committee in May, he said, “The potential amount of carbon in these unconventional resources is huge. If we introduce the tar shale and the tar sands as a source and exploit those resources to a significant extent, then the problem (of climate change) becomes unsolvable (without) geo-engineering.”

Engineering is exactly what many supporters of fossil fuels are counting on – technological solutions to global weather systems. My question is, if the companies can’t even engineer safe and reliable oil exploitation and delivery systems, where do they gain their confidence in the ability of humans to engineer climate systems or safe biosphere havens?

Due to an old US law, the diluted bitumen extracted from Alberta tar sands is not classified as oil. For oil companies and pipeline operators (including the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline under discussion), the exploitation of tar sands oil will come without the cost of paying the regulation-stipulated 8-cents-per-barrel contribution into the US federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which helps pay for spill clean-ups.

There have already been a number of tar sands oil spills. Included here are a few that were discovered:

13 oil spills in 30 days Source: tcktcktck.com

From NPR: “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  has come out in support of higher standards for pipelines carrying tar sands oil because the oil is more aggressive to pipelines than conventional crude, making leaks and spills more likely.  Michigan State University professor Stephen Hamilton thinks more regulation is needed because of the many ways that a tar sands spill can be more harmful to the environment and people than a conventional oil spill. Another example he cited is that tar sands oil is a lot stickier than conventional crude, so everything it touches, even rocks, cannot be cleaned and needs to be thrown away.

“The consequences and the costs of the cleanup, once it gets into surface water systems as we’ve seen in the case of the Kalamazoo River, are incredibly high,” he says. “And, you know, we’ll never get it all out.”

The presidential decision on whether or not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is currently under consideration, and is due in the summer or fall of this year.

If you haven’t already seen it, here’s what a land-based, casual oil spill looks like:

Oil Philosophy

http://www.exponent.com/petroleum_hydrocarbons/At the May 29 ExxonMobil shareholder meeting in Dallas, Texas, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson said that the oil economy is here to stay, and cutting carbon emissions would do no good.

He asked, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”

My first impression was of a man who had studied and adhered to a version of the Utilitarian school of thought, i.e. that the the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome. Thus, if humanity suffers due to taking the steps necessary to save the planet, then saving the planet is not a worthy undertaking.

But Mr. Tillerson it clear on that front. In a recent interview, he said, ““My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do(…) The rest is risk management.” He presents climate change challenges (to the extent the he accepts the science behind climate change at all) as engineering problems which are solvable via engineering solutions.

Does oil company ideology influence its actions and impact on the environmental discussion?

According to GOOD, nine out of ten climate denying scientists have ties to Exxon Mobil money.

To be fair, not all oil companies follow the same path. So I thought this week I’d explore fossil-based fuels from a few different angles.

World’s largest oil & gas companies Graphic: Stedas / Visual.ly

Greenopia‘s Top 5 Oil Companies and their Oil Spills. Note that this infographic was made while the BP Gulf was still underway:

Source: Tiago Velosa / InspiredMag