First I want to second this thought from Ezra Klein.
“If the cost of spills like this one is too high to bear, then we have to wean ourselves off of oil, not simply get really upset about this spill. Because there will be more spills. And they will happen in parts of the world that we don’t pay much attention to, and that don’t have our high safety standards or our ability to rush mitigation measures into place. What we’re seeing here is not a horrible disaster (though it is that), but a cost of relying on this particular type of fuel.”
They’ll eventually stop the oil from leaking out of the well. Then we’ll have hearings and possibly trials where we’ll learn all sorts of interesting things. We’ll learn that BP didn’t do enough to safeguard the wellhead and Halliburton screwed up cementing the pipe. We’ll learn that the government didn’t have enough assets in place to mitigate the damage. This process is necessary and hopefully will include someone writing a big check the residents of the gulf coast who will bear the brunt of the environmental impact.
While all this fascinating learning is going on, we’ll kick up the AC, because it’ll be August and it’ll be hot. Then we’ll drive to work or maybe the grocery store to buy produce shipped from South America. In other words, we’ll consider the crisis and then continue to make the choices which ensure that there will be more crises to come.
It seems likely that some errors and miscalculation led to the current oil spill in the gulf. That shouldn’t obscure the single largest cause for this event. We’ve been reduced to looking for oil a mile underneath the ocean.
The first oil well drilled in the United States was only 21 meters deep near Titusville, Pennsylvania. The first “gusher” wasn’t drilled until 1901 in Texas. The depth of that well was 370 meters, quite a bit deeper but also on dry land. By comparison, the wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon rig is 1,500 meters under water. The hole itself is another 4,000 meters deep (roughly 1610meters/1mile). Deepwater Horizon happens to hold the record for the deepest undersea well drilled at 10,685 meters, of which the first 1,259 meters were water.
We’re working awfully hard to extract oil now. Where we once could identify a potential field by looking for oil seeps, places were oil literally bubbles to the surface, we’re now looking a mile under the ocean through 3 or more miles of rock. Where it once took the energy equivalent of 1 barrel of oil to extract 100 barrels of oil, that ratio has fallen to 1 barrel to extract less than 10.
Our primary fuel has become more expensive to extract, not just the specific cost of finding/drilling/refining/distributing but also the societal cost of cleaning up spills/buying oil from people who hate us/long term environmental consequences. We either must learn to accept these costs with the knowledge that they’ll only grow until the oil can no longer be extracted or we start identifying a new primary fuel.