Ahab and the Gulf

Anyone who’s been around me these last weeks will testify to my mini obsession with what Moby Dick has to tell us about the Great Gulf Oil Vomiting of 2010. I’ve been listening daily to an audible telling of the great novel, all 136 chapters, available at Lit2Go from the University of South Florida (via iTunes.) In fact, the Pequod and all its crew but Ishmael, went to the bottom as I pulled into the garage this Friday. I sat of course, for a while, feeling the pressure of the watery grave. I’ve come to think that listening to the story, with all its erudite meanderings into amateur science, has been roping it into my dendrites much tighter than my former readings did. Perhaps it’s my age, or the year of this “reading.” But I get it now, more than I ever have.

They key point of comparison between the whale hunters and the oil hunters is that both, in their time, were the energy industry. Though wood and peat burning certainly provided warmth around the world, and coal had been mined since the time of the Romans there was nothing to compare to whale oil, especially sperm whale oil which didn’t smell as bad as right whale oil, for illumination, or for lubrication. As the whale population declined from voracious hunting, expeditions of 3 years and more as described in Moby Dick became the norm. Let’s call it far off-shore whaling. The essence of whaling was to pierce the animal with several sharp instruments — harpoons and lances– and bring the carcass alongside and extract the oil — from the blubber by refining it, and the precious spermacetti directly from the head. Call it sweet and heavy crude. The story of Moby Dick is, in a thimble full, the story of obsession, man’s drive to dominate, indeed revenge itself, against nature, and nature’s revenge against the world — the world of course being the Pequod with sailors and harpooners from every corner of earth.

It all seems impossibly predictive of what we see happening in the Gulf. Greed is more the driver than revenge, but domination of nature is still the mental set of those who have gone further and further off shore, to drive their deep drills into the earth to extract the precious stuff.

I’d been turning over a mid-sized essay to contemplate all this when lo and behold a pretty decent one appeared as the lead story in this Sunday’s NY Times, Week in Review. Randy Kennedy starts off:

“A quenchless thirst for whale oil, then petroleum, pushed man ever farther and deeper. And with great hubris, great risk.”

and continues:

A specially outfitted ship ventures into deep ocean waters in search of oil, increasingly difficult to find. Lines of authority aboard the ship become tangled. Ambition outstrips ability. The unpredictable forces of nature rear up, and death and destruction follow in their wake. “Some fell flat on their faces,” an eyewitness reported of the stricken crew. “Through the breach, they heard the waters pour.”

The words could well have been spoken by a survivor of the doomed oil rig Deepwater Horizon, which exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, killing 11 men and leading to the largest oil spill in United States history. But they come instead, of course, from that wordy, wayward Manhattanite we know as Ishmael, whose own doomed vessel, the whaler Pequod, sailed only through the pages of “Moby-Dick.”

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” — “Moby-Dick”

So I’m glad to recommend to you Kennedy’s piece. More judicious and less emotive than I might have been, nevertheless it’s worth remembering that man’s war against nature has been recognized for quite some while as a war that will not be won by the puny two legged creature, no matter how long his lances.

First Fatal Error on Gulf Rig

I heard the other day an interview with Mike Miller, a long time oil-fire-blowup expert, and not just in academia. His crew from SafetyBoss took the lead in extinguishing the hundreds of oil fires in Kuwait set by the routed Iraqi army in 1991. He is very attuned to the enormity of the Gulf spill and the difficulty of working one mile under the sea. But, in an almost off-hand reply to a interviewer question he let loose a damning assessment of the actions on the rig in the first hours. I haven’t been able to locate the interview on line, but here is the gist of it in a Science News article.

… a number of people within the industry are themselves speculating widely about the accident as well.

Among them: Mike Miller, chief executive officer and senior well-control supervisor at Safety Boss. Headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, his half-century old Canadian company specializes in fighting oil-well fires, blowouts, pipeline ruptures and processing-facility fires. He’s curious why BP rushed to put out the rig’s fires.

“At least while the rig was burning, all of the effluent from the well was coming to the surface and burning at the surface,” Miller notes. Indeed, burning oil — even on the sea surface — is an accepted spill-mitigation technique. So he’s puzzled why water boats were deployed to dowse the burning platform.

A mile down and out of sight
“What they did was fill the rig up with water. At which point it sunk,” Miller says — a full 5,000 feet to the seabed. And that, he maintains, violated “the first rule in offshore fire-fighting, which is not to sink the ship.” The reason: As soon as the rig submerged, it took down the riser pipe, which in this case was a 5,000-foot-long tethered straw through which the oil was gushing up from a reservoir 13,000 feet below the seafloor.

This riser didn’t just break loose and fall down when the platform sank: It crumpled. And where it suffered acute bends, it weakened, opening up at least two secondary gushers. So instead of having the oil coming out as a single fountain at the Gulf’s surface — one that people could reach — it’s now spewing from multiple holes in a damaged pipe nearly a mile beneath the surface

Contributed by Bob Whitson

The Oil Catastrophe: One Thing to Do

Americans spent $20,461,413,000 dollars on gasoline alone in 2009.  That’s at $3 a gallon.  A 10% catastrophe tax would bring in about $2,046,141,200 in a year, or $5,605,800 a day.

I don’t know what the economic cost of the damage to the gulf coast is going to be, nor how much British Petroleum will be forced to pay, or for what. It sure seems to me that one of the most important things President Obama can do is call on all Americans to share the burden of those who are most directly affected — the men and women, the children, whose livelihoods and ways of life are taking major hits, if not being totally destroyed. After all, it’s the gasoline we all use that drives the crazy search for the oil. What could $5.5 million a day do to help alleviate the real, economic injury the gusher is causing?

And if there is a surplus, or if the region recovers in two, or ten years, what could $2 billion a year do to help kick start non fossil fuel energy technology?

Let’s not wait for a cap and trade scheme. Let’s get started. Tax our own carbon energy use; drive it down, and raise major money to help those most damaged, and to push solutions that will help those in years to come.

Oil Update: Saturday

Update: Jail time, it seems to me…

WASHINGTON — Internal documents from BP show that there were serious problems and safety concerns with the Deepwater Horizon far earlier than those the company described to Congress this week.

The problems involved the well casing and the blowout preventer, which are considered key pieces in the chain of events that led to the disaster on that rig.

The documents show that in March, after several weeks of problems on the rig, BP was struggling with a loss of “well control.” And as far back as 11 months ago, the company was concerned about the well casing and the blowout preventer.

On June 22, 2009, for example, BP engineers expressed concerns that the metal well casing the company wanted to use might collapse under high pressure.

“This would certainly be a worst case scenario,” warned Mark E. Hafle, a senior drilling engineer at BP in an internal report. “However, I have seen it happen so know it can occur.” NY Times: Urbina

The plume shown in the PBS live cam looks black again, not muddy brown. Not good news, though interpretation of what is visible is disputed by those with experience in the field. Read more of this post

Best Oil Spill Coverage Sites

Best Sites for Coverage: EPA; NOAA; NOLA [Times Picayune]; Sky Truth; GulfLive; DeepWater Horizon Response