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The Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe: When Do We Say “Dayenu” (Enough)? May 14, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in Barbados, BP/Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe, Buddhist concepts, disasters, earth community, fossil fuel, oil, oil spill.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace.

“What counts is not the enormity of the task, but the size of the courage,” says Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and confidant of the Dalai Lama who was dubbed “Mr. Happy” after U.S. neuroscientists declared him the most content man they ever tested. Ricard’s statement resonated for me in light of continued developments in what I’ve come to think of as the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe. We’re going to need this kind of inspiration in order to deal with the Gulf of Mexico mess because the magnitude of the task before us—stopping the forcefully gushing oil, cleaning up devastated habitat, caring for injured or soon-to-be-harmed living beings in the path of the petroleum, protecting as yet unaffected regions—boggles the mind as it stirs the heart.

Since I’ve just returned from a weeklong Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training retreat, I’ve been away from the news of this calamity. But sad to say, my geologist’s perspective leaves me unsurprised by broadcasts of impotent efforts of oil industry professionals to handle the tragedy. Why? Because I’ve been sitting for the last week paying attention to body sensations, I’ll just say that we earth scientists feel in our guts the vast scales of Earth time and space; (it’s why I write about them). As Congress and a federal panel in Louisiana begin their inquiry into the situation not one person should be perplexed by the sequence of events that follow the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oilrig. Here’s why.

First of all, this event is much more than just another “oil spill.” To me, the word spill suggests flow from a confined space and implies a finite amount of liquid. The monster in the Gulf of Mexico is a gusher, a blowout, an uncontrolled flow of oil from a well bored into the earth, what drillers call a “wild well.” Dr. Frankenstein has put a spigot in the Earth and can’t shut it off.

When in September 2009 BP announced its discovery of the Tiber oilfield—what the workers on the Deepwater Horizon were boring into when it exploded—they characterized it as “giant” and meant to convey that their find contained 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. Basically we’ve tapped into a source of oil that will not be exhausted quickly. Isn’t that ironic?

It’s impossible to conceptualize such vast quantities, and as the crude oil continues to spew for the 24th consecutive day at daily rates reported to be 210,000 gallons, I’d like to help. Check out a Google Earth map website by Paul Rademacher that will allow you to compare the horizontal extent of the oil with the geographic size of your city, county or state. I checked Barbados, the tiny island on which I currently live; the crude oil would blanket it completely.

Ditto my home county—Dutchess in New York. It’s way bigger than Rhode Island, our convenient measuring rod for environmental disaster (Remember the Larsen Ice Shelf? The 220 meter thick—three football fields—chunk of ice “the size of Rhode Island” that disintegrated in 2002 after having been stable for up to 12,000 years.) Check the places that matter most to you and sense in your gut the feeling caused by the spatial comparison.

And speaking of space, oil and gas executives crowed about their record-setting achievement, touting it as one of the deepest wells ever achieved by their industry—drilled 35,055 feet deep into the Earth’s crust beneath 4,132 feet of water. You may wonder, “Just how deep into the earth is that?” Let’s put it this way, transcontinental flights cruise at that elevation above the Earth’s surface. Next time you are in an airplane, picture a pipe connecting your jet to the surface of the Earth and you’ll have a picture of the distance that BP went to access the Tiber Oilfield black gold.

Would that these innovators had gone to such extremes in order to apply to their work an ethical code that includes the Precautionary Principle:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Regrettably, precautionary action has been the exception rather than the rule in U.S. environmental policy. Perhaps it has operated to the frustration of some in decisions concerning disposal of high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain, but the Earth Day BP Oil Catastrophe demonstrates the virtue of Vorsorgeprinzip, German for “precautionary principle.” Literally, Vorsorge means “forecaring” and conveys forethought and preparedness—not simply “caution.” I say that a plan to bore “the deepest well ever” into the Earth, should be accompanied by accurately scaled and well-tested models for responding to unexpected contingencies. Ahimsa, first do no harm.

The first homework assignment of my Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training program was to read Jack Kornfield on the five basic Buddhist training precepts. Number two, “we undertake the precept of refraining from taking that which is not given,” strikes me as particularly apt given the circumstances in the Gulf. We consent to not take that which does not belong to us. We agree to bring consciousness to the use of all of the earth’s resources in a respectful and ecological way.

When will we, like Job, clap our hands to our mouths with the realization that human beings occupy an infinitesimal place within a divine whole? When will the “knowledge” of modernity succumb to the wisdom of the ancients? Could the answer to Job’s question of how long must his people suffer, “Till towns lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people; and the ground lies waste and desolate (Isaiah 6:11),” be also the answer to the question, when will the oil stop gushing? The chutzpah of humans got us into this mess; humility will help us out of it. We will need clear mind, wise heart, and sizable courage to say dayenu, enough.

Click here for more of Jill S. Schneiderman’s Earth Dharma posts.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on May 14, 2010 at 11:17 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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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.
6 comments

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.

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.
3 comments

(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.