Ecocentric

Update on the Oil Spills—All of Them

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Michigan is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of oil spills. But as of Monday, add the state to the list of those laying booms, scrambling cleanup teams and otherwise trying to stanch the flow of thick crude leaking from a busted oil pipe. And add that spill  to yet another new gusher the Gulf of Mexico—this one just 65 miles south of New Orleans—the third such incident to occur on a drilling platform other than BP’s lost Deepwater Horizon since that rig exploded and sank on April 20.

If you’re tempted to write your senator about the sudden spate of  spills, don’t bother. The new leaks are occurring just days after Harry Reid and his timorous Democratic majority walked away from their year-in-the-making energy bill, under threat of filibuster from Mitch McConnell and his snarling GOP minority.

The Michigan incident has a lot of similarities to the BP disaster—albeit writ small. Once again it’s an international company that’s to blame—this time Canada’s Enbridge Energy Partners. Once again, it’s a body of water at risk—this time the Kalamazoo River and perhaps Morrow Lake, which lies in the path of the spill. And once again, a CEO is promising to make things right.

“Our intention is to return your community and the waterways to their original state,” announced Enbridge chief Patrick Daniel. Once again too, the company is so far underachieving. Daniel toured the spill site with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and conceded that the clean-up effort so far is “anemic.”

The spill came from a rupture in a 30-in. diameter pipe that on a typical day carries 190,000 bbls (8 million gal.) of oil between Indiana and Ontario. The breach was sealed quickly, but not before  19,500 bbls (800,000 gal.) of crude got away. Residents of nearby homes  were evacuated, locals were warned against approaching the spill or inhaling its fumes, and workers deployed 14,000 ft. of boom—with 45,000 more on hand—to contain a river slick that has so far spread 20 miles.

Things have not been brought so readily under control in the Gulf, where a tugboat struck a shallow-water well in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay on Tuesday morning, rupturing the wellhead and sending water, oil and gas spewing into the air. The modest depth of the water should make the spill much easier to stop than  BP’s, but for now the shower of crude is continuing to climb 100 ft. in the air, creating a comparatively small slick that’s being  contained by 6,000 ft. of boom. This is the second beating Barataria Bay has taken this summer, having just been cleaned of BP oil last week.

The Gulf’s other two recent leaks are also comparatively minor—and comparatively common—and would not be making news at all if not for the BP elephant that’s been in the room for more than 100 days now. But that’s just the point. The only way to slake our thirst for oil is to continue to engage in industrial practices that are inherently dirty, unreliable and extremely dangerous. The only way to avoid the problem is either to invent a magic bullet that satisfies all our energy demands spotlessly and cheaply or to count on our legislators to cowboy up and pass the tough legislation necessary to price carbon, cap emissions and encourage the development of clean renewable technologies like wind and solar. For now, the safer bet is on  the magic.

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