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The BP oil spill is not alone

For some context on the BP oil spill, I highly recommend this analysis from John Broder and Tom Zeller:

The Deepwater Horizon blowout is not unprecedented, nor is it yet among the worst oil accidents in history. ... The ruptured well, currently pouring an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the gulf, could flow for years and still not begin to approach the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces when they left Kuwait in 1991. It is not yet close to the magnitude of the Ixtoc I blowout in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico in 1979, which spilled an estimated 140 million gallons of crude before the gusher could be stopped.

And it will have to get much worse before it approaches the impact of the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989, which contaminated 1,300 miles of largely untouched shoreline and killed tens of thousands of seabirds, otters and seals along with 250 eagles and 22 killer whales.

I'd think about this less in terms of the BP spill than in terms of the dangers of relying on oil. As Lisa Margonelli told me yesterday, "every gallon of gasoline contains a tremendous amount of risk we don't account for. The American Lung Association estimated that every gallon of gas costs us 50 cents in the asthma rate for children. You have the greenhouse gas question, leakage, spills, explosion, cancer risk from benzene, economic risk from the volatility of the prices, the military cost, and we do not account for all this."

If the cost of spills like this one is too high to bear, then we have to wean ourselves off of oil, not simply get really upset about this spill. Because there will be more spills. And they will happen in parts of the world that we don't pay much attention to, and that don't have our high safety standards or our ability to rush mitigation measures into place. What we're seeing here is not a horrible disaster (though it is that), but a cost of relying on this particular type of fuel. And it has to be factored into our calculations.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 4, 2010; 9:52 AM ET
 
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Comments

I agree with your points about the unaccounted costs of oil. However the analysis you cite of the direct impacts of a release is incomplete. How bad an oil spill is depends not only on how much oil is released but also on where it is released. In the current case the release of oil into the Gulf of Mexico has the potential to inflict billions of dollars in economic damages due to loss of fishing income and the loss of tourism.

Posted by: pwkennedy | May 4, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

And until we wean ourselves off of oil let's not create a huge new problem by drilling all along the Atlantic seaboard as the Obama administration recently proposed.

Posted by: AuthorEditor | May 4, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

even if this oil spill is not of the worst magnitude, and who knows if it will or will not be.....we are not getting sufficient information....it is still happening in areas of dense economic infrastructure for the united states,and that makes all of the difference, in economic terms.
and i imagine that every inch of the planet is environmentally sensitive, but this may flow to coral colonies and very sensitive marshland and into our rivers and rivulets.
.........
sometimes, good things come out of bad things. the only positive thing that could come out of this scenario, would be a major shift in thinking about alternative energy and would give the impetus for a transformation and overhaul in our approach to energy.
but what would that take?
.......
anyway, i think that we need the president, the secretary of the interior and the secretary of energy and the head of homeland security, to be addressing us with coherent facts.
there is too much misinformation and speculation.
who is providing the information? is the spill the size of 11 swimming pools, or of a state? i have read everything.
......and who is providing information? BP
i would rather hear validation in a press conference from stephen chu, than read three different estimates, and not know which is true.
we need more visible leadership, and it needs to be treated at the highest levels, like the crisis that it is.
maybe we are doing all we can, but this is not being handled well, in terms of clarification at the highest levels. in my opinion.

Posted by: jkaren | May 4, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

So we should raise the gas tax, by an amount equal to the federal government's projected outlay of money over the next three years to deal with this spill.

Posted by: jacobh | May 4, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

We will have to wean ourselves off of oil, whether we like it or not, and much sooner than most people think.

The US military expects oil shortages by 2015. http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/04/16/1583194/us-military-warns-of-serious-oil.html

That Miami Herald article was the only US paper that covered this story (granted, the Military buried the section about oil shortages on page 19)

But seriously, how is this not a bigger story? We have the military and the DOE saying "Get out your bellbottoms, the 70s are back!" and the mainstream media can't be bothered to cover it? Is it ignorance, or just a fear of scaring the herd and creating a stampede?

Posted by: nathanlindquist | May 4, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

This is why "drill, baby, drill" is such nonsense and a total distraction from the very important policies we need to be pursuing.

As a nation, we need much more investment in alternative energy. We need to account for the negative impacts of oil (health and pollution effects, spills, asthma, government corruption and support for nasty regimes, etc). We need to start looking for opportunities to spur innovation when it comes to marginal energy demand. For instance, instead of building a new coal-burning electrical plant, what about making the economics work so that homeowners can sell electricity back to the grid? After all, their roofs are hottest when peak energy demand is highest!

"Drill, baby, drill" is economic development policy on a par with “Come comrade, join us in the collective farm!”

It's so backward-looking, so centralized, so captured by entrenched interests, and so tremendously dangerous. It's just insane economic policy.

Posted by: theorajones1 | May 4, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

I completely agree with this post 100%. Still, and I can't believe it's falling to me to do this, we should also keep in mind the costs of weaning ourselves off of oil without a cheap and plentiful source of energy to replace it. As much as I wish it weren't so, my understanding of the state of alternative energy sources is that they can't produce enough energy to replace oil/coal right now, and even if they could that that energy would cost more than energy produced by oil/coal.

I'm not saying whether the cost of switching over is worth it or not, though personally I tend to think that it is. I just thought that in a post where we're talking about hidden costs that we should make sure we are considering every angle.

Posted by: MosBen | May 4, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

This gulf spill is a foreshadowing of the risks of drilling in less hostile waters. imagine a major oil spill in the Arctic - near Barrow in the dead of winter when the sun does not rise for more than 80 days of dark. Waters are frigid and unnavigable because of the ice, cold, and dark. Oil would be trapped and behaves very different in the cold. We should not be drilling in areas lacking access and our capability to handle spills.

Posted by: AKCheesehead | May 4, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

This gulf spill is a foreshadowing of the risks of drilling in more hostile waters. imagine a major oil spill in the Arctic - near Barrow in the dead of winter when the sun does not rise for more than 80 days of dark. Waters are frigid and unnavigable because of the ice, cold, and dark. Oil would be trapped and behaves very different in the cold. We should not be drilling in areas lacking access and our capability to handle spills. The good news is the gulf is warm with relatively easy access by air and water.

Posted by: AKCheesehead | May 4, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

"As much as I wish it weren't so, my understanding of the state of alternative energy sources is that they can't produce enough energy to replace oil/coal right now, and even if they could that that energy would cost more than energy produced by oil/coal."

It's not just energy we have a problem with.

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.

Posted by: slag | May 4, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

There's a major difference between the 36 billion gallons of oil Iraq dumped in the Persian Gulf and the current Deepwater Horizon situation:

Iraq dumped the oil into the ocean *from the surface*, where it remained. Millions of barrels of the oil were actually recovered by skimming it right back off the surface.

Same goes for Ixtoc and the Exxon Valdez.

But what we have here is oil gushing from the ocean floor, instantly contaminating the sea *from the bottom up*, from the moment it makes contact. There'll be no easy way to remove this. It is an ecological catastrophe that should not be understated in the manner that this article is doing.

Posted by: pulcova | May 4, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I agree that we need to wean ourselves off oil. But it seems like a lot of pols, including you, haven't really focused on the immediate, devastating consequences of this spill for people in the gulf states. Maybe it's academic for you guys, but I grew up there and have deep ties to the region. This will affect not just the fishing industry in Louisiana, but the tourism sector in all of the gulf states, including Florida. Not to mention the impact on fish, turtles, and birds. It's to imagine Louisiana without seafood, which is so much a part of the culture there.

So before we start talking about long-term policy implications, can we take a moment to mourn? And maybe focus on how we're going to repair the immediate damage?

Posted by: traveler16 | May 4, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

"and still not begin to approach the 36 billion gallons of oil spilled by retreating Iraqi forces"

Arabs.

"the Ixtoc I blowout in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico"

Mexicans.

"the Exxon Valdez accident of 1989"

Birds.

"the BP oil spill"

Americans.

Yep, BP is biggest.

Posted by: dpurp | May 4, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

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