America's dream of greater energy independence is rapidly turning into an ecological nightmare. Instead of filling empty gas tanks, BP's Deepwater Horizon well miles offshore is oozing thousands of barrels a day of oil, already covering an area over 1,900 square miles in the food-rich waters of the Gulf of Mexico. With no way of shutting off the valve, which is now buried 1,900 metres below the sea, a $2-billion seafood industry is threatened, not to mention the billions more in damage to coastal real estate values and the potential devastation to wetlands and the wildlife they contain if the growing slick washes ashore.
Most forms of unconventional oil and gas (including, by the way, shale gas) are invariably very hard on the environment. Although tar sands production draws most of the world's criticism, we are quickly discovering that deep-water wells and the pressure surges they engender run the risk of wreaking even greater ecological and environmental devastation.
And the deeper that technology allows us to drill miles below the ocean floor, the greater the risk that we will see more and more of these disasters. If this week has shown us the pressure surge of wells a mile below the ocean floor, what are the prospects of our standing up to those we'll encounter in newly discovered Gulf of Mexico fields like BP's Tiber one, six miles below the ocean floor?
Of course, devastating leaks haven't been the only thing to thwart America's efforts to boost its oil production in the Gulf. Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina and the other Category 3 to 5 storms that hit the region devastated its oil industry. Instead of doubling production levels, as once confidently forecast by the U.S. Department of Energy, production got hammered. In fact, it's only very recently returned to pre-Katrina levels, only now to face an entirely different setback.
Why is this so potentially devastating to America's oil future? The Gulf of Mexico was the only area of the country where there was any reasonable hope of expanding domestic supply. Production in the lower 48 states peaked in the early 1970s, as predicted by the American geophysicist King Hubbert back in 1956. And despite the enthusiasm of the "drill, baby, drill" lobby to do more in Alaska, that state's oil production has been depleting even faster than in the rest of the country. As a result, a country that once produced ten million barrels a day is now barely able to produce half that amount.
If you're wondering why we're risking catastrophic environmental consequences by drilling wells miles below the ocean floor, the answer is simple enough. It's the same answer to the question of why we're pouring billions of dollars into the tar sands.
It's all that's left.
*(Editor's note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this blog contained an incorrect conversion of nautical miles.)