William Faulkner once wrote, famously: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner — who’d probably be appalled at the environmental havoc that Big Oil has wreaked upon his native state of Mississippi over the years — could easily have been describing the saga of British Petroleum. Here on the Gulf Coast, we are forever talking about BP’s negligence that caused the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, because we live with the oily after-effects of the spill every day.
And yet, remarkably, the U.S. government has already lifted its short-lived ban on awarding leases to BP, as if nothing ever happened. Indeed, there’s little evidence that the oil giant learned much if anything from what happened off Louisiana just over four years ago. What prompts me to write that? Maybe it’s the fact that the BP seems to make a mess wherever it goes. It was just a few weeks ago that the firm infuriated residents of Lake Michigan in and near Chicago with a thick, oily discharge from its Indiana facility. And if that weren’t bad enough, now BP is fouling up the Arctic, in the same corner of the globe that’s struggled to get over the ExxonValdez spill:
Environmental officers with the state of Alaska are investigating an oil spill at Prudhoe Bay, after an unknown quantity of natural gas, crude oil and water escaped from a flow line operated by BP Exploration Alaska on Monday, spraying 27 acres of snow-covered tundra with an oily mist.
The release from the line at H Pad, Well 8 in Western Prudhoe Bay began at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, but stopped in two hours after the line was isolated and depressurized, according to a statement from the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Such a large area of snow was covered because the leak occurred in the pipe’s 12 o’clock position, on top, and the pressurized gas sprayed crude oil and water into a strong wind, said Ashley Adamczak, a spokesperson with DEC.
“The pressurized gas forced fluid to go up and hit a 30 mph wind, and that is what caused such a long release,” said Adamczak.
The damage is a little more than a mile from the 2006 leak of a transit line that ultimately became the largest recorded spill on the North Slope. That spill lasted five days and discharged 200,000 gallons over two acres. BP ultimately pled guilty to negligent discharge after failing to address corrosion.
It doesn’t seem to matter what the climate is — the balmy Gulf, the frigid Arctic — for BP to screw things up. But when you look closely, you notice that the conditions on the top of the world really magnify every mistake. Unthinkably low temperatures and fierce winds can make accidents like BP’s mishap at Prudhoe Bay much, much worse than they would be in a normal environment. Shell learned the same lesson in 2012 when its experiment of a season of offshore drilling ended with high winds slamming a barge — which, incredibly, was on the move to evade state taxes — into the rocky coast of Alaska.
You’d think that these bad experiences would frighten off Big Oil, but that would mean you have not been paying close attention. With massive amounts of lucrative oil trapped underneath the Arctic and with global warming meaning that more waters near the North Pole are navigable for rigs, the industry seems to be doubling down.
This week, Russia shipped the first crude from its new, risky offshore Arctic drilling venture to Europe. There’s been no trouble yet, but the entire operation seems the height of folly. As the Guardian noted recently:
Yet it’s not only Russian oil, coal and gas companies that play politics; it’s the fossil fuel industry itself. Even as western leaders denounce Gazprom’s actions in threatening to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, Shell is still committed to supporting Gazprom drill for more Arctic oil. Similarly, BP has a 20% stake in the largest Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft. As the Financial Times reported this week, BP is at the forefront of companies lobbying ministers not to penalise Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. As Putin tightens his grip in Russia he inevitably tightens the links with BP as well. Rosneft, along with Gazprom, are the chief sources of finance for his government.
And there is another obvious reason we shouldn’t be celebrating new Arctic fossil fuels. This week’s IPCC report, produced by 1,250 international experts and approved by 194 governments, definitively says we must get off fossil fuels fast. That means only about one-fifth of all fossil fuel reserves can be burned. So we don’t need, and cannot afford, new sources of harder to reach fossil fuels, such as Arctic oil.
That really hits the nail on the head: Why are we going to such extreme risks of another Deepwater Horizon-style disaster — except this time in the hostile environment of Arctic, where any cleanup would be a hundred times more difficult — when the world needs to be weaning itself off oil, not flirting with catastrophe? BP’s accident in Alaska this week strikes me as a grim kind of foreshadowing, and another reminder that we’re determined not to learn anything from what happened in the Gulf.
For more details about BP’s accident near Prudhome Bay, please go to: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/20140429/state-officials-bp-investigating-prudhoe-bay-oil-spill
Read the Guardian on the foolishness of Arctic drilling: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/18/oil-arctic-putin-gazprom-fossil-fuels
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