What if they can’t plug the well?

When news came on April 21 that ‘s drilling rig had exploded — killing eleven, sinking the rig, and leaving an open oil well gushing a mile down on the ocean floor — my first thought was, What if they can’t plug that thing? I’m still wondering. So far we’ve seen no evidence that they can. One can still hope, but hey: it’s been more than a month. Maybe plugging this thing is kinda like plugging a volcano.

My next thought was, Can the companies involved survive? The environmental impact would surely exceed that of any filed statement’s scenarios. Shoreline habitats, food sources, ways of life and indusrtries that depend on clean gulf coasts and waters would be damaged or destroyed for unknown lengths of time, and across a wide area. All the states adjoining the Gulf of Mexico, including those of Mexico itself, might be affected. So might islands and coasts elsewhere. (Follow the oil’s spread here.) The liabilities here can easily exceed the worth of the liable companies, or their abilities to pay.

Much blaming is going on, of course. Yesterday I heard Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana come down on both BP and the federal government. Those parties have also heaped blame on others. None of it helps. Could be nothing will help, until the well gets plugged, or upward pressure from the oil reservoir drops far enough to make containment possible. [Later… perhaps with the help of a relief well.]

How big is the reservoir here? We knew how much oil the Exxon Valdez carried. In this case, however, I haven’t heard an answer. Maybe one of the rest of ya’ll can find those figures, if they’re available. I’m guessing, from the pressure involved, that it’s large enough to FUBAR the whole Gulf, and then some, for years.

It might help to think of fossil fuel extraction as grave robbing, because that’s what it is. Most of the energy that lights our homes and keeps our computers humming comes directly from dead plants and animals. These are in great supply. In fact, they are more than sufficient to keep us civilized, if your time horizon is human rather than geological. Most humans don’t care about futures beyond those of their grandchildren. Geology, however, is much more patient. You need geology to make oil and coal. And for that geology takes millions of years.

This means, of course, that we will run out of the stuff if we keep extracting and burning it at current rates. But “we” is the wrong pronoun here. The right one is “they.” Because we’ll be dead by then, and so will our grandchildren. It’s an open question whether “they” will be equal to the problems we’ve caused for them.

No species lasts forever. All do what they’re best at, naturally. It’s hard to deny that what we’re best at are at least these three things:

  1. Increasing our numbers
  2. Spreading all over the place
  3. Using up resources — especially those that take millions of years to make and burn up in  an instant.

This last weekend the Wall Street Journal ran Humans: Why They Triumphed, by Matt Ridley. Its closing paragraphs:

There’s a cheery modern lesson in this theory about ancient events. Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century—despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters.

The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold—world-wide—in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex. And things like the search engine, the mobile phone and container shipping just made ideas a whole lot more promiscuous still.

Why “triumphed?” Who lost? And what is this dominion of ours, over which we now rule? At what costs, perhaps fatal, do we maintain it?

Etched on the front of the Engineering building at the University of Wyoming, is a large inscription that reads, STRIVE ON — THE CONTROL OF NATVRE IS WON NOT GIVEN. This contributed the title to John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, which, among other things, described exactly what would happen to New Orleans should a levee break, long before the resulting flood actually happened.

I suppose all species are arrogant winners. Ours, however, is uniquely equipped to overcome that natural insanity. Whether we will or not, however, is an open question. My bet, not that I shall ever collect on it, is that we are even more Ozymandian than Shelley imagined — whether the well gets capped or not.

Bonus blog.

29 responses to “What if they can’t plug the well?”

  1. FUBAR indeed. What would we do differently now if we knew this petro-volcano would vomit poison into the world’s oceans for the next 50 years? Buy pallet-loads of canned tuna… or cyanide pills?

  2. I read an ‘amusing’ observation that there wasn’t so much an oil shortage as an oxygen shortage. It’s not that there’s a shortage of oil per se, just a shortage of cheaply/easily accessible oil.

    The great thing about being a corporation is that you are immortal and don’t need oxygen to survive. Moreover you only need a functioning biosphere in so far as it’s economically necessary for your market (it is theoretically possible that a market can operate without human beings).

    This is why BP/Transocean/OtherCorp have little incentive to heavily weight the ‘worse case scenario’ much beyond ‘affordably disadvantageous’, and so why risking it is easily preferable to the expense that shouldn’t have been spared in proportion to the human oriented ecological cost.

    The corporations have also had little difficulty nobbling the regulatory environment to permit such risks and to minimise any statutory consequences. So, we have ourselves to blame, not only as Dr Frankensteins for creating and unleashing the psychopathic golems we call corporations upon civilisation in the first place, but for subsequently favouring them and allowing human beings to take second place to them.

    If BP stopped their PR exercise of adding dispersant to keep the oil slick mostly underwater as if an iceberg (to avoid satellite observation – sod the far more toxic consequences), it would cover a much larger surface area. Being far more reflective than normal seawater, and covering a significant portion of the Atlantic ocean it would cool it down (not least denying sunlight to many dependent organisms). This then leads to less evaporation, less cloud cover, less rainfall and lower albedo, and more heat absorbed by the planet until it once again stabilises at a higher temperature to generate the same cloud cover. Then again the planet could become colder.

    Deepwater Horizon is America’s Chernobyl. Fortunately, unlike radioactive waste, nature can clean up an oil reservoir evacuation in just a few centuries – copyright should be expiring on one seafood restaurant’s menu at about the same time as another seafood restaurant might once again be interested in copying it – assuming society still thinks it’s a not only a good idea to give corporations such privileges, but that corporations should be allowed to exist at all.

    Dropping a nuke on the well might have been the thing to do in the first instance, rather than the last…

  3. One small nit: at least in the developed world, we aren’t increasing our numbers. In Europe and Japan, there’s a demographic crisis. Birth rates are falling elsewhere as well – most estimations I’ve seen are that world population will peak sometime in the next 50 years or so, and then start to drop.

    So the malthusian overpopulation problem won’t be one we’ll have to deal with.

  4. 1) BP’s liability is capped. Whether or not this is a good idea it is the case.


    2) The pressure is not an indicator of the size of the reservoir. It is an indication of the weight of a couple of miles of rock pushing down on the deposit. It will try to gush out until the paths to the outlet are crushed shut, again by all that weight.

    3) Adding the detergent is a tradeoff, but it is not a publicity stunt. The more surface is exposed to the intense subtropical sun, the quicker the oil disintegrates, and the less of it makes it to shore, where most of the damage will happen.


  5. Todd Carpenter Avatar
    Todd Carpenter

    You should take a listen to “The Story” show on NPR this evening. It’s a fascinating story about the Exxon Valdez.

    Here’s the description from the site:
    “Beyond Dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico – Interview with Riki Ott”

    “When Riki Ott heard about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it brought back a nightmare she’s lived with for the past 21 years. Riki was fishing for salmon in Cordova, Alaska in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. At the time, she hadn’t told many people in Alaska that she had a PhD in marine toxicology, but that knowledge helped her as the community took stock of the damage and made sure the voices of the fishermen were heard. Now she’s in Louisiana to help citizens and fishermen there deal with the aftermath of the Gulf spill. One of Riki’s biggest concerns is about the potential dangers of chemicals dispersants.”

    Looking forward to seeing you this weekend.

  6. I hope BP doesn’t pull a Lapindo Brantas here, as per what happened at the Indonesian Sidoarjo Mud Flow incident…

    The Pt. Lapindo Brantas company avoided accountability by using governmental clout. Several international panels, a recent one in the States, resolve that only human error could have caused the disaster. Yet the mud continues to flow out of the ground, pushed up by the ruptured natural gas pockets. And the Bakrie business group continues on.

    Too easy to imagine BP pulling off at a global scale what Lapindo pulled off at our national level.

  7. Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wrack, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

  8. Can you say Kharma. A few of the states that saw resources that should be pillaged for money are among those affected. These sames states vote consistently for anti-environmental, short term view vs long term view Congresspeople, Senators, and Presidents. So I feel bad for the Gulf, the land, the animals. But I don’t really feel bad for people who are reaping what they sewed. Drill Baby Drill.

    And yes it scares the crap out of me if they can’t plug this thing because I am worried for the animals and plants. They are innocents in this whole thing.

    The thing with Oil is when we don’t need it anymore. All that infrastructure, the refineries, pipelines, wells are all going to be abandoned for the US to clean up on the tax payer dime. All the upper management folks will just close the company say, thanks for the billions in pay we got, good luck to you all.

  9. Doc this is all a little malthusian for my taste. The world is significantly cleaner than it was 30-40 years ago and there’s no reason to think the coming decades won’t see continued environmental improvement.

    What our great-grand-children need is for this generation and the next to innovate our way out of a reliance on fossil fuels without stopping or reversing the massive overall increase in wealth we’re currently enjoying as a species (with millions/billions being lifted out of poverty as a result). What’s the alternative?

  10. For a better understanding of the problems face by Southern Louisiana, I recommend Mike Tidwell, Bayou farewell : the rich life and tragic death of Louisiana’s Cajun coast (2000). Tidwell includes a chapter about the massive offshore drilling in the Gulf and even refers to the huge (and then untapped) high pressure reservoir where this well was apparently drilled. He also gives a detailed picture of the culture of the Louisiana bayou country and the lives of the shrimp and seafood fishermen. It was enlightening to read this book and Tidwell’s predictions of potential hurricane damage, written long before Hurricane Katrina.

    I have read that the oil is flowing under “165 to 170 thousand pounds per square inch of pressure.” I simply cannot wrap my head around that number.


  11. The Pt. Lapindo Brantas company avoided accountability by using governmental clout. Several international panels, a recent one in the States, resolve that only human error could have caused the disaster. Yet the mud continues to flow out of the ground, pushed up by the ruptured natural gas pockets. And the Bakrie business group continues on.

  12. Jeremy, the problem is that we’re ruining the world. Or, well, actually YOU are ruining the world. I’m not, because I recycle. The only way out of this fix is extreme poverty. After all, it’s not the poor people who are deforesting the undeveloped nations. It’s not the poor people who are burning wood for heat in open campfires inside their huts. It’s not the poor people who are inventing new drugs to cure illnesses.

    The problem is global capitalism. All these people, trying to make their lives better. That’s what’s making their lives worse, because only I know how to best run their lives. They need to try, instead, to make their lives worse, by treating gasous plant food as a pollutant, by reducing population below the point where we can afford to take care of our old people, by forcing oil wells off the land and the shallows out into the deep water where disasters are inevitable.

    After all, free markets didn’t stop the pipe from gushing. Only government action was able to solve that problem, with the full expertise of our government oil drilling companies. The oil industry was completely unregulated before this disaster, which is what happens when you have free markets. Fortunately, free market capitalism caused a disaster again, so we’ll be able to tighten up the reins and enact even more regulations.

    Red is grey, and yellow white; we decide which is right, and which is an illusion.

  13. Regarding the total estimated volume of the oil field,I have read that the volume is comparable to the size of My Everest…
    If the sea floor collapses,it would vent for centuries.

  14. We specialize. We develop tricks, we succeed in growing our numbers, and we spread. Every species does. Then the trick doesn’t handle some shift, and the population dies back.
    The petroleum model of western civilization can’t bring the next half billion people into even a modest variation of the west idea of middle class lifestyle that passes for ‘triumph’. It doesn’t matter how much of it there is, the economics of how to get it, and the speed of getting it, just doesn’t pencil out. And then there is the CO2 problem.
    It has been true for sometime that we need to anticipate and adapt to the changes human success in the ‘burning’ era have wrought. We can only hope to reinvent everything before massive human die-backs take place.

  15. Dave, where have you read that? I’d like to get some clear numbers on that topic, and haven’t seen any yet.

  16. The spill is a market failure. All negative externalizations are private interests free loading on collective assets- benefits taken at the unaccounted expense of others- now oceans away.

  17. Re. Dave’s 5/29/10 comment about the oil field’s volume being the size of Mt. Everest: that blew my mind, so I googled it. Here’s a source from a 2009 NYTimes article: BP Finds Giant Oil Field Deep in Gulf of Mexico.

    I’m unclear how this oil field (which was just discovered in 2009) is linked to the oil well that’s currently spewing into the Gulf – I thought the present well is ~5,000 feet below the water’s surface, while the NYTimes article talks about a field that’s 35,000 feet below the surface. But maybe they’re linked, and the deeper field feeds into the well that’s gushing now?

    The article states:

    The discovery, called the Tiber well, is about 250 miles southeast of Houston at a depth of more than 35,000 feet — greater than the height of Mount Everest — and well below the gulf floor.

    Sadly, I’m reminded of Rachel Maddow’s recent segment, which compares the oil disasters (albeit smaller) of 31 years ago. She notes, at the end, that the ONLY technological advance the oil companies have come up with is that they can drill deeper. But their methods of clean up and containment and risk management are still stuck in comparative dark ages. FUBAR indeed.

    I might have nightmares about that collapsing sea floor scenario.

  18. PS: I realize this doesn’t answer your question about numbers – the reference in the NYTimes article is to an oil field that’s as far below the ocean as Mt. Everest is tall (no mention of the oil field’s volume/ capacity/ yield). I’m just appalled that these companies are even contemplating drilling that deep.

  19. Quite a few mainstream press sources pick up the Mt Everest comparison – that the oil companies plan to drill as deep below the ocean floor as Mt Everest is above it – and I’m guessing that this somehow got “translated” on some other sites to suggest that the oil reserve being tapped is the size of Mt Everest. I can’t find a legitimate source that reports this, though.

    But you gotta love the breathless quality of some oil spokespeople, at least before the current oil disaster (one hopes they are now on STFU mode):

    “Isn’t this transcendent?” Paul Siegele shouts as he presses his nose to the window of a Bell 430 chopper hurtling through a sky thick with rain and pitchfork lightning. We’re flying over the Gulf of Mexico, above some 3,500 oil production platforms, and Siegele is pointing them out with the verve of a birder — here a miniature oil rig known as a monopod; over there a drill ship almost as big as the Titanic; still farther out, platforms looking like huge steel chandeliers that dropped out of the storm-shaken clouds. (source: Wired Magazine)

    Transcendent??? Seriously? …Kill me now.

  20. “Shoreline habitats, food sources, ways of life and indusrtries that depend on clean gulf coasts and waters would be damaged or destroyed for unknown lengths of time, and across a wide area”

    This is neither the first nor (anywhere near) the largest oil spill we’ve had in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s bad, but we’ll recover.

    “It might help to think of fossil fuel extraction as grave robbing, because that’s what it is…This means, of course, that we will run out of the stuff if we keep extracting and burning it at current rates”

    That’s my understanding, but there’s a significant body of opinion to the contrary. I don’t know enough about the subject to say, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we will never run out of oil.

  21. J, name a bigger spill. (I’m game. Maybe there was one. Hell, I dunno. This one looks pretty freaking big to me.)

    And tell us how how we’ll never run out of something that takes millions of years to make and isn’t everywhere.

    The body of opinion to the contrary always ignores the finite nature of non-renewable resources that still exist in sufficient abundance to outlast our grandchildren, and cares nothing about humanity — or anything — beyond that. That most of this opinion calls itself “conservative” still amazes me.

    And I’m no liberal either. (Though I’ve been one. A conservative too.) I’m a registered Independent who loves business, dislikes Big Guvmint and thinks most new regulations only protect yesterday from last week. I see no easy answers to anything, and most tough questions unanswered, especially by those whose political knees jerk quickly.

    What we need here is sanity. I don’t see many signs of it. Not in positions of power, anyway.

  22. “name a bigger spill”

    I agree this one looks (and is) “pretty freaking big”. Here are links to the top ten list, the smallest of which is roughly twice the size of the current gulf spill, though some environmental groups claim the current spill is much larger than previously thought; Forbes or Wikipedia, depending on your political slant at the moment:



    I’m not sure if you understood my remark about the body of opinion to the contrary. There are, as I understand it, a few theories about how oil can be produced, some of which would, if correct, mean that oil could was not a non-renewable resource. Here’s a secondary link from Boing Boing: http://kk.org/ct2/2008/06/the-unclear-origins-of-oil.php?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ct2+%28CT2%29

    I suspect that like volcanic eruptions, large oil spills are far more common than most people think. Again, this one is bad, but we’ll recover. I agree we’re not seeing a lot of leadership from the public sector on this, but I’m also not sure I want to see a bunch of lawyers who know about as much about how to handle this problem as my cat does interfering. It would be nice if they stopped waiving safety requirements (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050404118.html?nav=hcmodule), complied with and prepared for their own response plans,
    and maybe hired some historians. From the article:

    “neither federal regulators nor the company anticipated an accident of the scale of the one unfolding in the gulf”

    Well, except that it had happened before (see: Ixtoc 1).

    That actually sounds a lot like Condi Rice’s remark after 9/11 that nobody anticipated hijackers using airliners as missiles, despite the fact that very scenario had been attempted – in the US – 7 years earlier.

  23. Doc, we’ll never run out of oil because substitutes for oil will be cheaper, just as we’ve not run out of whales because the subtitutes for whale oil became cheaper.

    And … economic value is basically someone’s opinion about what they can trade it for something else. Can you see how that a finite amount of $WHATEVER can have an infinite value, and infinite use?

    Yule: the problem isn’t that they’re drilling deep. The problem is that we don’t want oil spills on our shores, so we forced them to go far offshore. Do you think that was a good solution? (I’m guessing not.)

    And … the reason Rachel is having to go back 31 years to find oil disasters to compare is because the oil industry has figured out how not to have disasters. There’s a rainbow in that cloud.

    Patrick, this oil spill is not a market failure. It is a government failure, because their contract allowed BP to drill without the necessary safety equipment, like a remotely operated blowout preventer. If you doubt me, consider what would have happened if your neighbor had contracted with an oil company to drill, and they spilled oil and it ran onto your land. Would that be “market failure”? Of course not. It would be your pissant neighbor’s failure.

    Markets don’t fail. They produce the results that the incentives dictate. If you don’t LIKE the results (which is often how people conclude that markets have “failed” to produce the desired results), then STOP BLAMING MARKETS and start blaming the people who set the incentives. Usually, and sadly, this is a government which has attempted to legislate problems away. But legislation is not always regulation, just as the foot on the accellerator does not always regulate the speed.

    All of this is separate from the fact that the oil industry is one of the least free markets anywhere. Funny how the less free the market, the more people complain about how awful are free markets. Financial industry is the same way: highly regulated and complaints about how the free market doesn’t work. Hey … my Tesla Roadster doesn’t run for crap! (that’s because it doesn’t exist.)

  24. I totally agree with Russell’s comments. Goverment should not be regulating markets. However, in this case, government needs to exercise it’s power, close the well (which it could have done weeks ago using explosives), and possibly seize all of BP’s US-based assets and sell them to the highest bidder.

  25. Quick note to say I thought Rachel Madow’s piece was highly incomplete and unfair. This event was not exactly the same. And Russ is right that the tech has improved.

  26. I didn’t find the Maddow piece unfair, Doc: all it did was to illustrate that the techniques for containment and/or repair haven’t changed significantly over 3 decades. I’m struck by how cavalier that is, given the increased risk now with where (and yes, how deep) we’re drilling now – even if it is the case that there are fewer spills/ mishaps/ disasters overall.

    As for not wanting the oil on-shore, Russell, how much “force” was there to make the oil companies go “far offshore” – or was this matter of taking the activity out of sight so that consumers (outside the direct economic loop of the oil business) don’t get upset? Could it be the case that if resource exploitation happens right under one’s nose, people will start complaining, asking questions, panicking? Here in Canada we’ve got the tar sands in Alberta, far out of sight – the “offshore” of human perception because aside from boomtowns like Fort McMurray, people don’t actually live there in significant numbers (although the area is a boreal ecosystem that’s getting absolutely trashed, raped to the teeth). I don’t have the figures right now on how much potable water is needed for each lousy liter of oil that’s extracted, but it’s staggering (and – to use a word that’s getting overused – not sustainable). We don’t seem to expect the markets to have to pay for negative externalities, and that’s a huge problem. Until that happens (that negative externalities are part of the market equation) we’re going to keep trashing the commons.

    As for whether or not oil is really the product of fossil remains (as per J’s comment), Thomas Gold advanced the theory that oil is produced by anaerobic bacteria deep inside minerals (rocks) in the Earth’s deep layers (scroll down to the section headed “Origins of petroleum”). Look up his book, The Deep Hot Biosphere (foreword by Freeman Dyson). Sounds kooky, but Gold came up with a couple of other unconventional ideas that proved to be correct. Anyway, whether it’s the result of dead animal remains or live animal (bacteria) production, our extraction-production-consumption of the end product in a market that doesn’t have to pay for negative externalities seems screwball to me. If that makes me naive or a flaming commie, so be it. But show me why (a) trusting oil execs who aren’t held to account or (b) continuing as we are is the better idea.

  27. […] a couple of other comments on more far-ranging topics: Doc Searls’s May 26 entry, What if they can’t plug the well?, prompted me to post several comments. My comments comprise just a few of the twenty-five generated […]

  28. […] full post on Nick Bradbury’s Shared Items If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it! Tagged with: can’t […]

  29. Christ, did Ayn Rand wander in?

    “Fortunately, free market capitalism caused a disaster again, so we’ll be able to tighten up the reins and enact even more regulations.”

    Just shut up, please. Free market capitalism would let the ocean die – why? No one owns them, no one cares.

    “Funny how the less free the market, the more people complain about how awful are free markets.”

    In a truly free market, the major players eventually force out the smaller ones, leaving a monopoly or oligopoly in place of a vigorous, healthy, competitive environment. Then they use their position at the top of the food chain to force out weaker competitors and maintain their position.

    This is ECO101 – I find often it’s the most slavish devotees of materialist/capitalist thought that represent the most reprehensible, anti-intellectual and anti-life elements within our species.

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