Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oil be back

It may not be news to you to hear that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill isn’t the first oil spill that’s occurred since man first discovered petroleum on an otherwise unsuccessful hunting trip (I’m a bit shaky on the history). However, it may surprise you to find that despite the immense volume of crude oil that has spilled into the Gulf of Mexico since the 4/20 day celebrations got a bit out of hand (current estimates are between 213,000 and 367,000 tonnes of crude oil so far), it is not the biggest oil spill on record.

The Lakeview Gusher holds that title; this accidental oil-geyser pumped out over 1 million tonnes of crude oil over an 18 month period, from 1909-1910. But that was on land. It may have flooded an entire valley, but it couldn’t get any further than that, not like when it happens at sea. Surely it’s much worse when that sort of thing happens at sea. Well it already did in 1991.

During the Gulf War, Iraqi soldiers dumped crude oil from several tankers into the ocean. Estimates of the total amount of oil spilt into the ocean range from 250,000 tonnes to 750,000 tonnes. The coastline affected didn’t have the level of biodiversity that can be found elsewhere, such as the Gulf of Mexico. Because of this the environmental impact was relatively low, although by no means immeasurable. Many of the ecosystems have since fully recovered; those that haven’t need more time due to the lack of wave energy which breaks up the suffocating tar crusts that form on shorelines.

Next on the list is the Ixtoc I spill, which occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979 and loosed ~420,000 tonnes upon the seas. The events that surrounded the disaster were so eerily similar to the current events that it’s as though the oil industry is taking after Hollywood and simply ‘reimagining’ major catastrophes rather than coming up with something original. It took ten months to cap the rogue oil well, so my money’s on February 2011 for the current spill to be finally stemmed.

The list of ocean-based oil disasters goes on. The Atlantic Empress spill near Trinidad and Tobago in 1979 (260,000 tonnes); the ABT Summer spill near Angola in 1991 (260,000 tonnes); the Castillo de Bellver spill near South Africa in 1983 (230,000 tonnes); the Amoco Cadiz near France in 1978 (202,000 tonnes); and so on and so on… The Exxon Valdez spill, the one you hear so much about, is way down the list at number 54 with a mere 102,000 tonnes.

Finally, there’s the biggest oil spill of them all. If you think it’s strange that I’d put this so far down the page it’s because this one is different, this one’s natural. That’s right, natural crude oil seepage occurs throughout our oceans, and not just a little bit. As much as 2 million tonnes of crude oil seeps into the World’s oceans all on its own, every year.

My point here isn’t that the current oil spill is inconsequential. I don’t want to be labelled an environmental-holocaust denier. This is just a literary relief well, designed to stem the flow of man’s ego. We’ve stuffed up. Ecosystems are in danger and it’s entirely our fault. Be concerned, but please, don’t panic. We’re just one little speck on the face of this planet, our actions may seem apocalyptic, and eventually to us they very well may be, but the planet is a big girl; she can look after herself. She’s had to deal with this sort of thing before, worse in fact, and she’s always pulled through. Heck, she does this sort of thing to herself just for kicks. She’s developed ways of dealing with excess oil; although her time frame is just a little longer than we’re used to. In the mean time, we’ll cap the well. We'll wipe down the pelicans and polish up the swamp reeds. Don’t be too hard on our species. If nothing else the reaction to this event shows us that while some of us are money-hungry, self-serving Earth-haters, many of us still care. Now stop worrying about it so much. We will have forgotten all about it by the time the oil industry brings out their next disaster anyway; and unless they have a burst of much-needed inspiration, I'm betting that will involve Iraqi soldiers.

PS: This is a not-so brief announcement to anyone who thinks boycotting BP until they clean up the spill, or boycotting any oil company for any reason, is in any way noble or even effective.

The idea of a boycott on one particular petrol station is flawed. It assumes that oil companies make money on petrol sold at petrol stations. In truth, most of the money made by oil companies is through back-room oil trading. Petrol stations make their money on food sold when people come in to buy petrol. That’s why there’s been a massive trend to sell a range of food in petrol stations. Now, the next bit requires a very basic understanding of economics. That’s exactly what I have, so most of you should be fine.When one petrol station chain is boycotted, demand on petrol decreases. This means that they have an increased supply. If people are boycotting one petrol station they must be using another. This means that demand increases at the other stations, decreasing supply. At this point the boycotted company has more oil than the others. The companies with a sudden increase in demand now have to turn to the boycotted company to get their oil. The boycotted company can then charge exorbitant prices for their oil, increasing profits.So, what you are achieving by successfully boycotting BP is actually increasing their profits and decreasing the profits of other companies. This may seem counter-intuitive, but what you actually need to do if you want BP to suffer is boycott all other petrol stations. If everyone used BP and no one else, then BP would be forced to buy high-priced oil from other oil companies. Once their supply matched demand everyone could then boycott BP for a month or so. BP would not be able to balance supply with demand and it would make life very difficult and expensive.However, it is most important to remember that many petrol stations are independently owned and simply franchised to a particular company. A boycott on BP, in all likelihood, will increase BP’s profits and bankrupt small-business owners. Maybe keep that in mind next time you burn a few extra litres of petrol to go out of your way to avoid BP, all in the name of an environment that probably doesn’t really care what we do.

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