How quickly we've gone from "drill, baby, drill" to "spill, baby, spill." One of the greatest environmental disasters of the new century is ongoing as millions of gallons of crude oil pour from a hole in the earth some 5,000 feet beneath the sea. Already the fishing industry there is shut down, perhaps for a long time to come. And most of the oil hasn't even made landfall yet, where the fragile coastal marshes and rich littoral zone will pay the price for America's gluttonous petroleum consumption habit. Unfortunately, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer is still in his "drill, baby, drill" mode and our own environmental disaster may be on the near horizon.
Anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last two weeks has heard all about the explosion and sinking of British Petroleum's (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico. What "couldn't possibly happen"—an underwater well-head blowout—happened. Eleven workers simply disappeared in the explosion, and then the enormous fire burned for days, sending immense plumes of black, oily smoke into the air. Eventually, the whole platform tilted, collapsed and sank beneath the waves.
In the meantime, a mile below the surface, the well BP punched through the Earth's crust continues to gush tens of thousands of barrels of raw crude oil and associated petroleum compounds into the ocean at the unbelievable pressure of 100,000 pounds per square inch. What has been called "a hole into hell" taps one of the largest oil deposits on the planet and, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), could radically expand from an estimated 5,000 barrels a day to 50,000 barrels a day. If so, spewing 2,000,000 gallons of crude per day would surpass the Exxon Valdez catastrophe within a week and continue for an unknown period of time, perhaps years.
Some of the crude is rising a mile through the sea and creating a thick, stringy carpet of gelatinous oil that, at last estimates, covered an astounding 5,000 square miles of ocean. More remains unseen below the waves, where the heavier compounds will be spread over the ocean floor.
So far, few of the efforts to contain the disaster or slow the ruptured well have had any effect whatsoever. Absorbent booms have proved almost useless as 6–8 foot waves simply slosh the oil over their tops or tear them loose. BP says it's building a massive concrete and steel cap to lower over the wellhead to contain the gusher...but no one has ever tried using such a device in mile-deep water and it's totally unknown if it will work. In the meantime, plans to drill into the original well to relieve the pressure are estimated to take months and, like the cap experiment, the result is unknown.
Meanwhile, BP and our own government are spraying "dispersants" on the surface slicks and injecting them into the plume a mile down. So far BP has purchased a third of the world's supply of dispersants and dropped more than 100,000 gallons of it into the ocean in just one day last week. But this isn't Ivory Soap they're using, folks—it's a mixture of toxic chemicals that marine scientists say may be as bad or worse than the oil itself. And guess what? No one knows for sure what's being dumped into some of our nation's most productive waters because the chemical makeup of the dispersants is a "trade secret."
As the horrific scene unfolds, important questions are belatedly being asked. One of those is whether or not such a disaster was anticipated and whether or not preparations were in place to deal with it. The answer, in a word, is "no." BP simply contended that such a blowout couldn't happen and, if it did, the company deemed the nearly 50 miles between the well and the shore enough to disperse whatever leaks might occur. The federal government concurred and granted the operation a "categorical exclusion" from environmental review. Now, tens of thousands are suffering and the environment is destroyed because BP wasn't right.
Governors across the nation are withdrawing their support for off-shore oil drilling—Christ in Florida and Schwarzenegger in California, among others. Yet here in Montana, Schweitzer continues to bull ahead for full-scale energy development, particularly of fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.
In one grotesque example, Schweitzer this week lauded the sufficiency of a mere environmental assessment instead of a full environmental impact statement for shipping 200 enormous loads of Korean-made equipment through Montana to service the Alberta tar sands—perhaps the most environmentally destructive petroleum produced on the planet.
This equipment, which is over 35 feet high and 210 feet long, will theoretically be shipped up the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers on a narrow two-lane road and then over the incredibly steep and twisting Lolo Pass—in winter, no less. Anyone who has ever driven that pass will find it hard to believe. But even worse, the route then goes up the Blackfoot River and along the Rocky Mountain Front. Schweitzer, however, with dollar signs dancing in his eyes, simply blows off any consideration that maybe all the contingencies haven't been considered in the state's abbreviated environmental analysis.
And then there's his plan to inject millions of tons of carbon dioxide from Canadian coal-burning power plants beneath the Hi-Line. Again, this is one of those fossil fool projects with unknown impacts and unimaginable consequences.
The BP disaster should be a wake-up call to the nation and its political leaders. It's an opportunity to revisit our national energy priorities and, hopefully, finally leave the age of coal and oil behind. Closer to home, it's time to tell our own Coal Cowboy to get down off his high horse, take a long, hard look at the potential consequences of his recent decisions, and just say "Whoa" to his headlong rush to turn Montana—and its still-pristine environment—into an energy colony.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.