Saturday, June 5, 2010


Guest post by Welectricity

Getting people to change their behavior is hard, but it can be done.

The first thing required is recognition that there’s a problem.

In this case, the problem is our addiction to the consumption of more and more stuff as an end in itself, which directly fuels our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, which in turn is slowly destroying our planet.

Perhaps there’s a growing recognition that this is a problem. But recognition, though necessary, is not sufficient. Another thing needed is leadership. Somebody has to set the example for others to follow. In that case, why not use high-profile people who we're already looking at?

Our politicians are required (at least, in mature democracies) to publicly disclose their personal finances. So, why don’t we get them to disclose their energy footprint at home as well? This would give them an incentive to reduce their consumption (so as to look good in the eyes of the public) and would provide a powerful example for us all to follow.

A radical suggestion?

Maybe. But today, which is World Environment Day and which also happens to be day 47 of the man-made, ongoing BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we should recognize that we need radical ideas and actions now, more than ever.


On April 20th 2010 an explosion shook the Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible offshore oil rig working 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.  The rig caught fire, eleven workers died in the mishap and the rig, owned and operated by Transocean Ltd on behalf of British oil giant BP, sank two days later – on Earth Day.

NASA image of the Gulf on May 24, 2010. From
Since then, crude oil - the stuff that powers the world - has been gushing out of a broken well 5,000 feet below sea level and today, 47 days later (and World Environment Day), the disaster is officially the largest oil spill in US history.

It turns out that BP was operating the well without a remote control shut-off switch used by some oil companies as a last resort protection against underwater spills.  Use of the device, called an acoustic trigger, is mandatory in other major oil-producing countries such as Brazil and Norway.

Arguably, the device could have prevented the gusher that, by some estimates, may already have pumped up to 4.5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.  Marshes, wetlands and beaches in Louisiana have already been fouled by the oil, Florida’s coast is threatened and Cuba, 300 miles to the southeast of the spill, watches apprehensively.  Giant plumes of oil are reported to be floating ominously below the surface of the gulf, slowly dispersing their contamination.  The environmental and economic damage to the region is expected to be catastrophic.

So, why was BP not using the remote shutoff device?  Apparently because its use was not mandated by US regulators.  And, of course, stuff like that costs money.  BP, a profit-motivated private company, wants to cut costs, and their operation didn’t include the $500,000 one-off cost of an acoustic trigger.  Never mind that in 2006 BP’s profits piled up at a rate of over 60 million dollars a day.

The first time something like this, on a far smaller scale, happened in the US (off the California coast in 1969), it helped give birth to the US Environmental Protection Agency.  Will the 2010 BP oil spill be the wake-up call for energy in the 21st century?

After the leaking well is plugged (which may take several more weeks), a fundamental reckoning is needed.  Apart from the obvious regulatory issues raised by BP’s reported culture of risk-taking and the fact that they have been repeatedly allowed to get away with such an approach, this disaster needs to bring into focus the real, but uncounted costs of our addiction to oil.

The externalities and subsidies that are not priced into oil must now be counted.  These costs must be assigned, via a carbon price (which will also cover other dirty fuels such as coal), to the cost of consuming a barrel of oil.  This will facilitate our transition to alternative energy sources – a transition that must, and will, inevitably happen, but which needs to happen sooner rather than later, because the tipping point has been passed.

Our thirst for oil is sending us into further, deeper, more uncharted and riskier reaches, with dire consequences for our planet.  Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker notes that 

While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun. This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands. Oil from the tar sands comes in what is essentially a solid form: it has to be either strip-mined, a process that leaves behind a devastated landscape, or melted out of the earth using vast quantities of natural gas.”
Indeed, BP’s well was being drilled at what are now admitted to be “unprecedented” depths, where mishaps would clearly be more difficult to prevent in the first place and deal with after the fact, as is now being horrifyingly demonstrated.
And New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin put the matter into its perverse context yesterday,  when he noted that the amount of oil estimated by BP to be contained in the deposit now leaking into the Gulf was only enough for “five days and change worth” of US demand for oil.