Saturday, May 01, 2010

Putting the Gulf oil spill in perspective

The MSM and the blogosphere have reached a feverish pitch reporting this week's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While it is still too early to say what the end result will be, here are some previous oil apocalyptic scenarios that the doom-sayers seem to have forgotten.

Over the past 50 years, oil production in the Niger delta has resulted in spills estimated to have exceeded one million tonnes (~7 million barrels) in total. The result has been widespread chronic illness, environmental degradation to tropical rainforest and mangrove habitat, and severe social unrest.

During the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq set fire to all of Kuwait's oil wells and spilled close to a million tonnes of oil into the Persian Gulf, partially as a deterrent to amphibious assault. Following the war, they drained most of the Tigris-Euphrates wetlands in order to destroy the culture of the Marsh Arabs, who opposed Saddam Hussein.

In 1979 the Ixtoc exploratory well in Mexico blew out, spilling close to half a million tonnes of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the 2006 Israel-Lebannon conflict, Israel bombed the Jiyeh power station, resulting in a spill of 20-30 thousands tonnes, and coating over a hundred kilometers of coastline with oil.

I'm assuming everyone knows about the 40,000 tonne Exxon Valdez spill.

In 2003 the Sea Empress spilled 70,000 tonnes of oil into an estuary in Wales. 200 km of coastline were contaminated.

The current estimate for the Gulf spill is around a thousand tonnes per week, although the uncertainty on this estimate is large.

Worldwide demand for oil is about 10 million tonnes per day. About one fifth of that is from the United States.


Shaun said...

Yep, kinda harsh when the exploitation comes back to bite you isn't it? Kinda like all the anti-mining and pro-environment people who like driving cars, riding bikes (preferably made out of titanium, because they're lighter and nice to ride), or flying around in planes (just to spread their message), or wearing jewellery, or cooking with metal pots and pans, or cooking over gas ('cause it's nicer than electric right??).....the solution to all of these problems are obvious. Get rid of people. Either that, or grow up, accept that our lifestyles consume energy and resources, and learn that we can mitigate, but we can never stop doing damage in some way, shape or form.

Chris Phoenix said...

Um, 1000 tonnes per week (~= 1000 barrels per day) is BP's original figure. But the Coast Guard says it's spilling five times that fast. And the Christian Science Monitor says that independent scientists estimate it may be five times *that*, or 25,000 barrels per day.

Two months of 5,000 tonnes per week equals the Valdez. If it's 25,000 tonnes per week, then it'll pass the Valdez in just two weeks.

The average rate of spilling in the Niger delta, 140,000 barrels per year, is astonishingly bad. But at 5,000 barrels per day, the Gulf spill will take just one month to spill that much oil.

So, yes, this is a world-class spill. This is, of course, assuming that BP's initial estimates were... shall we say... optimistic. Does anyone think BP's initial numbers are more reliable than the Coast Guard's more recent numbers?

Chris Phoenix said...

Sorry for the double post, but I just read up on the Ixtoc I disaster.

Ixtoc I released oil at 2-6 times the rate of Deepwater Horizon. And it flowed for about 9.5 months before it was capped, from June 3 '79 to March 23 '80.

On the other hand, the oil was in the water for two months before it hit the shoreline of Texas. That gives a lot of time for it to disperse and evaporate. And a lot of time to prepare to protect the shoreline.

So I don't know whether, with less than a week in the water, Deepwater Horizon's oil will be more or less damaging than Ixtoc I's. We'd also have to look at the nature of the coastline... but if I had to pick a type of coastline to saturate with oil, mangrove swamps and low barrier islands and salt marshes would be near the bottom of my list.

Bottom line: while I usually think running the numbers is a useful antidote to doom-and-gloom hype, in this case, the gloom seems justified by the numbers. This is not one for us to feel good about.

dining room table said...

I am wondering why there are different figures about the oil spilling. I think BP is making us optimistic even with all these problems.