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Pandora’s Oil Well May 11, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, disasters, fossil fuel, geologic time, oil, oil spill.

This piece is cross-posted at truthout and CommonDreams.org.

It has also be re-posted on Peninsula Peace and Justice Center.

Technical jargon conceals by confusion. The immense scale of the problem surrounding the sinking of the Transocean drilling rig, “Deepwater Horizon,” requires that the public stay alert when confronted with slick lingo.  So, I’d like to help readers understand from a geologist’s viewpoint the sad absurdity of the Gulf of Mexico situation—one that is much more than yet another “oil spill.”

In September 2009 BP announced their discovery of the “giant” Tiber oilfield and crowed that drilling a 35,055 foot deep well into the earth’s crust under 4,132 feet of water made it one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry. Less than one year later, BP had to alert the public to an explosion and fire onboard the semisubmersible drilling rig—a “unit” floating above the seafloor that when flooded causes the contraption to submerge a desired depth and produce relative stability while drilling for oil and gas in rough waters. The rig was mining oil from the “Mississippi Canyon 252 well” that British Petroleum (BP) owns. And on Earth Day 2010, we learned that BP had “activated an extensive oil spill response” and was working with Transocean using remotely operated vehicles to assess the condition of the Tiber well and the “subsea blowout preventer.”

A critical distinction here is between an oil spill and a blowout. I tried to look up the definition of “oil spill” in OilGasGlossary.com and found the following: “Sorry, but we can’t found (sic) the definition of Oil Spill in our Oil Gas Glossary.” I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I really just wanted to have confirmed my instinct that the vernacular meaning of spill, to flow from a confined space, implies a finite amount of oil. In contrast, the Glossary told me that a blowout is an uncontrolled flow of oil, water, or gas from a well bored into the earth. It suggests to me a comparatively unlimited quantity of the black gold. When BP announced their discovery and termed it “giant” they meant to convey that the Tiber oilfield contained somewhere between four and six billion barrels of oil; this contrasts with a “huge” oilfield usually considered to contain 250 million barrels of the stuff. Regardless of whether it’s giant or huge, this Gulf of Mexico event is more than a spill.

What we have beneath the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher folks. Only unlike 1859 when drillers greeted gushers with celebratory hoots, in 2010 BP confronts the Mississippi Canyon blowout with a relief well—that’s another well drilled near and into the well that is out of control. BP doesn’t use the phrase but drillers call the continuously spewing wells, “wild wells.” Forgive me, but it’s hard to feel reassured by the company’s assertion that they’ve begun to remedy the subsurface problem—oil escaping with great force from inside the earth to the planet’s watery surface—in this manner.

I’m reminded of the Centralia, Pennsylvania underground coal seam fire that has been burning since 1962. Like other coal seam fires, it may continue to burn underground for decades or even centuries until the fuel source is exhausted.  So too the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), banned by the U.S. Congress in 1979 yet still leaking into the Hudson River three decades later from fractures in rock beneath the General Electric facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, New York where the company utilized PCBs in the manufacture of capacitors.

The time and space scales of the earth dwarf those of us mere humans, yet we tinker with the Earth’s resources, manipulate them for our purposes, and underplay the risks we take. We scramble at the surface of the Earth to curtail the disastrous upshots of our inane technological “achievements.”

When Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to people living on Earth, he angered Zeus. The king of the Olympians exacted revenge on humans by ordering the creation from earth of Pandora who would be a vehicle for bringing misery to mortals. According to the myth Pandora’s box (jar)—a present from the Gods—loosed upon earth all the sorrows and plagues then known to humanity. In 2010, we’ve opened Pandora’s well—Mississippi Canyon 252—spewing oil, sowing suffering, and defying control.

Bill McKibben on Democracy Now April 15, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in climate change, fossil fuel.
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Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, interviewed Bill McKibben today. Bill makes his points well.

Household Garbage to Energy April 13, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in earth community, fossil fuel, incinerators, landfills, municipal waste (household garbage), recycling.
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Today’s New York Times article (“Europe Finds Cleaner Energy from Trash) explains how incinerators that burn household garbage, ones that are much cleaner than conventional incinerators, are being used to turn local trash into heat and electricity for neighborhood homes in Denmark. Multiple filters on these incinerators trap toxic pollutants such as mercury and dioxin. Over the last ten years, these plants have become the main means of garbage disposal and an important source of fuel in areas of varied land use and economic class.  Use of these incinerators has minimized the country’s need for fossil fuels for energy and has reduced the use of landfills, thus diminishing the country’s carbon emissions. In Denmark, garbage is a clean alternative to fuel, not a disposal problem.

It’s a remarkable story and one that seems a good tribute by which to acknowledge today’s release of Bill McKibben’s new book, Eaarth: Making a Living on a Tough New Planet. Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” has devoted much energy to rallying awareness about climate change.

In Eaarth, McKibben argues that humans have changed Earth in such fundamental ways that it is no longer the planet on which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. Seawater is becoming acidic as oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere; the cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realms of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is in the process of doing so; tropical regions of the globe have pushed two degrees further north and south changing patterns of rainfall and causing droughts, fires and floods. It’s a new planet he says, hence Eaarth, not Earth and we’ve got to wake up and start living on it differently.

What to do? Steer away from the path of insatiable growth that has caused Earth to morph into Eaarth, says McKibben. “Scale back” and “hunker down.” Create communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth.  He provides inspirational examples of neighborhood windmills, provincial currencies, corner markets, and local internet communities to jump-start this endeavor.

Let’s add to his list of changed behaviors, the use of Danish garbage incinerators. Today’s New York Times article notes that no new waste-to-energy plants are planned for the United States, even though the federal government and twenty-four states currently classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel. We have 87 trash-burning power plants in the U.S., almost all built at least 15 years ago. Right now, we send most of our garbage to landfills. New York City sends 10,500 tons of residential garbage to Ohio and South Caroline every day. Why? The worst trend in traditional environmentalism is responsible for this situation. Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism.

As McKibben urges in Eaarth, it’s time for a change folks. In Denmark, garbage to energy plants are placed deliberately in the communities they serve so that the heat of burning garbage can be most efficiently sent to homes. In the community highlighted in the NYT article, Horsholm, 80% of the heat and 20% of the electricity comes from burning trash. As a result, homeowners’ bills as well as carbon dioxide emissions are lower.

It’s this type of thought and action that Mckibben urges us towards in Eaarth, an inspiring read.

Ruptured coal ship + Leaking heavy fuel oil = Devastated reef April 5, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in coal, coral reefs, fossil fuel, Great Barrier Reef, oil, oil spill.

(Image from Australian Maritime Safety Authority / April 4, 2010)

In attempting to address the question of how humans should behave as actors in the system of environmental change, I’ve been thinking and writing about writer Rob Nixon’s concept, slow violence. To use Nixon’s words, slow violence is an oxymoron because acts of slow violence are those with lethal repercussions that sprawl across space and time. (For more on the concept read Nixon’s remarkable paper “Slow Violence, Gender and the Environmentalism of the Poor” in Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies, 2007)

Nixon has said that it’s hard to get people to recognize slow violence because the effects are so much greater than the space and time of one human life time. He says we need graphic images that can serve as icons to motivate us to stop perpetrating such acts.

So, my vote for an icon of slow violence is the sad image above that was printed in the Los Angeles Times today. It shows the more than 700-foot long, Shen Neng 1 , carrying 65,000 tons of coal striking the Great Barrier Reef (note that coral reefs cover less than 1% of the world’s oceans) and leaking heavy fuel oil from the 300,000 gallons it carries to run its engines.

Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas April 4, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in fossil fuel, hydraulic fracturing.
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Despite the fact that we humans must curb our use of fossil fuels, the technique of hydraulic fracturing (aka ‘fracking’) is being touted as an innovative way to extract natural gas from shale deposits. In my home state of New York, much attention has been paid to the issue because of the presence of an extensive sedimentary layer, the Marcellus shale, that could serve as a substantial source of the fossil fuel. For a balanced treatment of the potential promise and peril of this technology see the Scientific American report, “Fracking to Free Natural Gas”