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Deepwater Horizons not so bright

1 October 2010 6 Comments
On 20 April a disastrous explosion on the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon rig killed 11 workers and subsequently caused the rig to sink. A damaged wellhead underwater was left leaking over 1 million litres of oil per day for a month. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April, the world is left wondering how this could happen, whether or not it was preventable – and more importantly, will it happen again? Bjorn-Ruban Thomassen reports.
oily bird

Rescue of a Brown Pelican from the Barataria Bay in Grand Isle, La., June 4, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Marie Gorden. Image: Deepwater Horizon Response

Deepwater Horizon is not the first major devastating oil spill in the world. A little closer to home, it was only last year that one of Australia’s worst oil disasters occurred.

On 21 August 2009, a blowout on a rig in the Montara oil field in the Timor Sea off the northern coast of Western Australia left a well leaking 64 tonnes of oil per day. The well did not stop leaking until 3 November when the blowout was capped.

The World Wide Fund for Nature reported that the oil leak had significant impact on marine life, occurring in a fragile conservation area. Consequently green groups have been calling for better emergency response plans at oil and gas sites, as well as improved safety measures.

In more ways than one, the Montara Wellhead spill foreshadowed what would be an even worse disaster.

While the official investigative report on the spill is yet to be made public, conservationists and experts claim that lessons clearly have to be learned in the field of security and safety measurements on oil rigs worldwide.

And while the public discussion on the safety over oil rigs continues, others question the severity of impact oil spills have on the environment.

In a report published on the University of Technology Sydney’s Newsroom website, professor and marine biologist Peter Ralph argues that the Montara Wellhead leak had little impact on marine life.

“This is not refined or processed oil leaking from the Montara Wellhead platform.

“It is the same natural oil that leaks from natural fissures in the sea floor.

“The highly toxic components of this oil evaporate far more readily than other oils such as the bunker oils. As the slick breaks down, components of the oil will dissolve in the water but the large volume of the surrounding water means the impact is quickly diluted.”

While Professor Ralph’s statements might indicate that oil spills of a major size like the Montara Wellhead are not as dangerous as they are made out to be, other experts say there is simply not enough knowledge of the subject.

Professor Ross Coleman is the director for the Centre for Research on Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cities at the University of Sydney. He says more research is needed before we can truly define the environmental impacts of oil spills.

“The environmental impact of an oil spill is often actually not known because it’s an area we don’t have much knowledge of.

“People don’t necessarily define what they mean by environmental impact. For instance, conservation groups often use emotive imagery in their work. A bird covered in oil spill trying to take off from a rig is not a pleasant sight, but it is not necessarily indicative of environmental damage.”

After the Deepwater Horizon spills, birds were largely reported to be affected and Coleman agrees this is a problem.

“The effects of oil spills on sea birds are reasonably understood,” he says.

“Oil causes birds to lose the capacity to insulate themselves, so they often die of hypothermia. And while there is the option of cleaning the birds, it usually adds stress and the birds end up dispersing anyway.”

However, Coleman argues that it is very hard to know in detail how oil spills affect other marine life, as in general we know very little about the deep sea.

“We generally know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep sea. So understanding ecological impact on deep sea marine life, such as organisms living on the sea floor is simply something we need to do more research on. Better research on oil spills in these habitats would mean we would better know what would happen if they were contaminated,” Coleman says.

A greener future

Environmental groups worldwide argue that oil spills on the whole should be avoided no matter how much or little of an impact they have on marine life.

Alex Moore, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth US says all new oil drilling should be avoided.

“Offshore drilling is inherently dirty and dangerous. The only way to protect our coasts and our economy from oil spills is to ban any new offshore drilling,” he says.

The organisation also remains highly critical of the US government and BP in light of the recent disaster.

“For far too long the U.S. Government has allowed oil companies to set the rules for safety and environmental protection”, he says. “Do-nothing regulators have looked the other way as companies like BP drilled deeper and deeper, putting the coastal ecosystems and fisheries at unacceptable risk.

“President Obama needs to take over the spill response to ensure that people and the environment are put ahead of BP’s profits,” says Moore.

BP themselves have openly declared ultimate responsibility for what happened and are responsible for making things right.

While their response to the oil spill has been under extreme amounts of scrutiny, even President Obama acknowledged at a recent press conference that some of the criticism hurled at BP has been unfair or overly harsh. And as the company progresses with the clean-up, the very future for offshore drilling is looking bleak.

Green organisations warn of future environmental disasters caused by offshore drilling, and while President Obama has put a moratorium on drilling permits until November, experts are beginning to question whether our dependency on fossil fuels must come to an end once and for all.

Professor Coleman says there are resources that unlike fossil fuels, are not currently being used to their full potential.

“There is a fine supply of oil and coal on the planet, and the less there is the harder it is to get, and the pricier it will become. I think we will suffer stress long before the supplies run out,” he says.

He adds that Australia has a “shockingly bad” reputation in this respect.

“We have the possibility to provide solar power a lot more than we do. And yet successive governments have unsuccessfully done so, by failing to fund necessary research.

“For instance,” he adds, “the University of New South Wales did research on solar power but was cut back on funding.

“Another indicative of a poor attitude towards the issue is the lack of use of water power. In Sydney, it rains more than it does in London but still most of the rainwater goes out to sea so we suffer periodic droughts.”

Greenpeace International recently announced a new blueprint showing how governments investing in green energy jobs could save the climate and fossil fuel addiction.

“Our Energy Revolution scenario shows how to eliminate unpredictable fossil fuel costs, destructive mining and oil exploration and with it catastrophes such as the current BP Gulf oil spill,” said Sven Teske, Greenpeace International’s Senior Energy Expert in a statement.

“Investing in people, rather than dirty and dangerous fossil fuels not only boosts global economic development but stems catastrophic climate change,” he added. The report goes on to show that cutting our dependency on fossil fuels is not a matter of technology, but investment.

“The 2010 Energy Revolution report outlines pathways towards a 100% renewable energy supply for the world. It demonstrates that there is no technological barrier to achieving this vision and reaping its many benefits in terms of the environment and jobs,” said Christine Lins, Secretary General of the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC).

She added, “The barrier is political. All that is now needed to set sustainable energy future for our planet is the political will.”

The Lofoten Islands – potential disaster

This political will might see a rather significant boost after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, if environmentalists are to be believed.

In Norway, plans for test drilling were recently dropped.

With its 4.8 million inhabitants, it might seem rather insignificant in comparison to the bigger, more powerful European nations, but Norway is no small player on the European economic market.

With large resources of oil, natural gas and hydroelectric power, it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, benefitting from its large coastal areas, strategically kept to itself by opting out of affiliation with the European Union.

Since the 1960’s, successful offshore test drilling for oil and gas has quickly sent the country to the top of the world’s list of financially wealthy countries, and Norway invests its Petroleum Fund, saving up capita for future generations.

While Norway has avoided any major damage from oil spills, there are still concerns about its offshore rigs.

As the government announced new plans for more test drilling close to potentially very fragile marine environments, green groups throughout the country panicked and quickly opposed the government’s plans.

However, it was not until the Deepwater Horizon disaster that plans were officially dropped.

The proposed new drilling was to take place in the Barents Sea, just off the coast of the Lofoten Islands. For the 25,000 inhabitants living on the islands, an environmental disaster such as an oil spill could have devastating consequences.

Frederic Hauge, of the Norwegian Environmental group Bellona, says the area is one of the world’s most important fishing grounds.

“The Lofoten Islands and the Barents Sea is one of the world’s cleanest sea areas, and is the natural habitat for over 150 different fish species,” he says.

“The areas are grounds for spawning for some of the world’s most important fish stocks. The Northern areas are regarded as internationally important sea bird areas, and are the homes to a lot of endangered species. These unique resources are vulnerable to pollution from oil spills.”

Bellona says the Norwegian government so far has insufficiently taken this into consideration, as well as failing to acknowledge how there is very little knowledge about the natural resources in the area.

“Accidents and spills in these vulnerable areas will generally have bigger consequences than other places in the world,” Hauge says.

With the government currently revising its plans for expanding offshore oil drilling, the vast fishing and sea bird grounds of the Lofoten Islands are momentarily safe, but for other areas of the world offshore oil drilling is the only option in the search for energy fuels.

Joshua Reichert of the Pew Charitable Trusts in the US says while offshore oil drilling probably will not come to an end anytime soon, environmentalists are happy with the focus that has been put on safety measures and risk assessment.

“All uses of the ocean should be considered through rigorous, scientifically valid assessments of the potential impacts and benefits,” he says. “If offshore oil and gas development continues to be a part of the picture it should not be at the expense of either safety or the other economic and environmental values our oceans provide.”

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority and BP Global declined to issue any comments, and directed information requests on to their respective websites.

Bjorn-Ruban Thomassen was on an Global Environmental Journalism Education Initiative exchange at UTS is now back at City University where he is completing a Bachelor in Journalism.

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    Not to forget the potential conflict between tourism and drilling for oil….

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