June 4, 2010

Known unknowns

There have been a lot of hypocrasies, overblown claims and outright lies that have been thrown around ever since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig blew up, sending eleven men to their deaths and unleashing an undersea gusher that continues to set records as the worst oil disaster in US history -- and continues to contend for perhaps the worst environmental calamity the world has seen.

One thing that has been constantly gnawing at the back of my noggin, however, is the fact that the Deepwater Horizon rig that was drilling a mile down into the ocean -- and the corner-cutting by a gazillion-dollar oil behemoth looking for even greater profits from our insatiable thirst for oil -- isn't a unique situation, by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, there are even higher-risk drilling ventures occurring right now, at depths that boggle the mind.

Consider this snippet from an article published last month in Offshore, an oil trade publication:

As recently as 2007, ultra deepwater drilling rig availability was a constraint, with fleet utilization steady at 100%, and day rates soaring above $600,000 for high-specification drilling units. Even today, deepwater rigs are fully contracted before they leave the shipyard, many even before their keels are laid. A quick census as of January 2010 identifies 41 deepwater floaters with capabilities between 4,500 ft (1,372 m) and 7,500 ft (2,286 m) of water, 42 ultra deepwater units with capabilities between 7,500 ft and 12,000 ft (3,658 m) of water, and nine in the shipyard. Of the ultra deepwater bracket, four rigs are rated to 12,000 ft of water, as are two of the nine rigs still under construction.


* Oil companies are so eager to drill in unprecedented depths -- environmental risks be damned -- that every last one of the massive, super-sized deepwater drilling rigs that currently exist in the world are in use right now.
* Energy companies and drilling contractors will pay more than half a million dollars a day to use them
* Shipyards that make the ginormous rigs have buyers lined up in advance.
* As of January 2010, nearly four dozen rigs that can drill deeper than the Deepwater Horizon -- including four (with nine more under construction) that can go up to two and a half miles down, and a handful that can go twice as deep as that -- are out there in some ocean, grinding away for cheap fuel that helps us contribute to the destruction of the planet's atmosphere.

Given the, shall we say, slipshod federal oversight of BP, it's a safe bet that we collectively have no idea whether the corporations are operating them safely, not to mention whether their fail-safe technology is up to snuff -- or if they can handle a catastrophic accident any better than BP's back-of-the-envelope attempts so far.

Rachel Maddow, whose program has done the best job I've seen of putting this disaster into context, has consistently pointed out that the race to get to oil at previously unprecedented depths has all but ignored the ability to get the oil safely and responsibly.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: if there ever was a moment to shift gears, literally, from fossil fuels to green energy, now is that moment.  Eugene and I both hope President Obama doesn't let this crisis go to waste.

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