Blog post

crawfish pileLately I’ve been reading the excellent coverage of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill at, a site frequented by veteran oil geologists and engineers. A couple of adages from the old-timers are worth quoting: “Cut corners all you want, but never downhole,” and, “There’s fast, there’s cheap, and there’s right, and you get to pick two.”

There will be plenty of blame to go around, as events leading up to the fatal rig explosion are sorted out. Even if efforts to plug the gushing leak succeed sooner rather than later, the damage to the Gulf environment and to the economy of the region will be incalculable and will linger for years if not decades. The deadly stench from oil-oaked marshes—as spring turns to hot, fetid summer—will by itself ruin tens or hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods. Then there’s the loss of the seafood industry: we’re talking about more than the crippling of the economic backbone of the region; anyone who’s spent time in New Orleans (my wife’s family all live there) knows that the people and culture of southern Louisiana are literally as well as figuratively composed of digested crawfish, shrimp, and speckled trout. Given the historic political support from this part of the country for offshore drilling, and for the petroleum industry in general, this really amounts to sacrificing the faithful on the altar of oil.

But the following should be an even clearer conclusion from all that has happened, and that is still unfolding: This is what the end of the oil age looks like. The cheap, easy petroleum is gone; from now on, we will pay steadily more and more for what we put in our gas tanks—more not just in dollars, but in lives and health, in a failed foreign policy that spawns foreign wars and military occupations, and in the lost integrity of the biological systems that sustain life on this planet.

The only solution is to do proactively, and sooner, what we will end up doing anyway as a result of resource depletion and economic, environmental, and military ruin: end our dependence on the stuff. Everybody knows we must do this. Even a recent American president (an oil man, it should be noted) admitted that “America is addicted to oil.” Will we let this addiction destroy us, or will we overcome it? Good intentions are not enough. Now is the moment for the President, other elected officials at all levels of government, and ordinary citizens to make this our central priority as a nation. We have hard choices to make, and an enormous amount of work to do.

Photo credit: mmmyoso/flickr

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Reader Comments


Re: the essential problem...

From: PJ, Jun 26, 2010 09:00 PM

...we have to become locally sustainable & stop our dependence on fossil fuels. We have to reduce our impact by pursuing simpler lives & we must change our vision as a culture. Read the books Ishmael, Story of B, Original Wisdom & My Ishmael... and realize how a tribal way of life could help us transition away from the Americanization (and destruction) of the world.

The essential problem

From: Ralph Dratman, Jun 1, 2010 09:39 AM

Fix all the technical mistakes that let to this blowout -- every single one -- and think you've solved the problem? You haven't touched it! The real problem isn't this horrible spill, nor even our addiction to oil.

The essential problem in this whole disgusting scenario (what's wrong with this picture??) is our human biomass overflow. We are perhaps ten times too numerous for the planetary system to supply all our needs and recycle all our wastes.

Here is an irresistible puzzle for thinkers: Within about 120 years of right this instant, every single wonderful and successful -- or rotten and failed -- life will be over, and the planet will be nearly dead. Why should we live now and die later?

For the sake of our whole beautiful world, an early end for most of us would be the greatest gift we could offer our grandchildren. If voluntary self-sacrifice is established, I will be among the first to step forward, but I can't and won't do it alone.

After long consideration, I've come to the conclusion that mass early departure is the only way we humans can duck the coming blows, which will make this oil spill and all our other pollution and climate issues look like tender love taps.

What does anyone else here think? Can anyone else show a plausible solution to solve our problems with a less drastic, less desperate program?

If you can, please (!please!) show me where I'm wrong.

Dependance on oil

From: Yossi, Jun 1, 2010 04:00 AM

Just how do you propose we end our dependence on the stuff? John Michael Greer (in The Long Descent’) writes ‘ Net energy in single digits, which is what the best renewable energy technologies manage, simply won’t produce enough spare energy to support an industrial society’.
I wonder whether you have read his book? If you have you will know that he doesn’t think we are heading for an apocalypse but a much reduced material lifestyle – one that most people will not accept until forced to by circumstances rather than persuaded by any politician.

Getting off Fossil Fuel

From: Walter Schwarz, May 31, 2010 06:20 PM

We all must renounce fossil fuel,how shall we do it?

How about we all pledge to never buy a a new fossil fuel powered car. This will only work if the pledge is kept and the new cars pile up on dealers lots. Then the economy will crash and Obama will declare an emergency, calling the auto workers back to work to build millions of wind turbines, instead of more gas guzzlers.

Maybe we should all stop paying our credit card debt and housing mortgages. This will cause the economy to collapse and our runaway consuming to stop, decreasing our production of carbon dioxide and maybe stopping the Parts per million count from exceeding its present 387.

Maybe just a nationwide boycotte of British Petroleum
until the US Government stops all drilling. We can stop the corporations if we withhold our dollars

gulf spill

From: Bill Sadler, May 31, 2010 02:01 PM

The BP oil spill is just one of several injuries we have inflicted on the gulf region. We also dump pesticides and nitrogen into it from runoff via the Mississippi. We trawl for shrimp, killing everything on the bottom for a few shrimp. We construct channels that kill the wetlands to transport our "stuff".

We also should consider what pumping the aquifers heavily throughout the midwest, destroying one of our most important resources.

We plant monocultures of corn to feed our beef which we have injected with antibiotics since cheap beef is a high priority.

We pave over productive farmland to build huge houses.

We will pay for this stupidity.

the end of oil

From: A Humanist, May 31, 2010 01:15 PM

i personally would like to see the end of oil, however it will be a gradual transition from our dependency of oil to the world we idealize and see fit for ourselves and our mother Earth, the big issue is, how do we heat our homes if we live in northern climates?. how will we handle the eventual conversion over to environmentally friendly plastics and materials?. how will we drive the gears of industry such as steel to build all our wind turbines and solar panel housings? what forms of sustainable means of production will we as humans have to consider?. lets look at the facts in the 1800s coal was used to heat steel foundries to make everything from nails to ships. we made the step to oil and gas power when we started tapping wells into the earth, this was the birth of the modern age.
now everything runs on oil. how do we progress the gears of industry in order to sustain human existence and way of life if all these little devices that we use, all our food, our hear, our lighting, our production, our cars, our aircraft, our ships, our roads, and finally our clothes have to be manufactured differently in order to keep our mother earth in tact?.

Oil's Uses

From: David Hastings, May 31, 2010 12:40 PM

While I agree that we must wean ourselves from oil, I believe that we are in a situation which will not make it easy to do so. We're really facing a triple whammy: overpopulation, climate change and resource depletion. Oil's cheapness, seemingly endless supply and multiple functions have allowed the population to grow far beyond Earth's ability to sustain it when the oil is gone. The biggest use of oil here in America is for agriculture. No other energy source provides us with the ability to grow the bumper crops we need to feed not only ourselves but much of the rest of the world. Only a handful of nations can truly provide all the food they require. Another major use of fossil fuels is the mass production of medicines, without which literally millions of people would die every year from diseases, som of which we have held at bay for a century or more. We may quit driving, develope communities which are built for humans rather than cars, learn to walk again or rice a bicycle, and use mass transit, convert all our industries to solar or wind generated electricity, and cease making plastics which don't biodegrade. These are all good things, but they will not do anything but put off the time when we, even here in America, cannot feed our population or protect them from diseases and plagues yet unknown.
We need to begin making people aware that our only real chance to save humanity and the Earth's environment lies in reducing our population to a level that allows both it and all the rest of life in our environment to be sustained. Only this will really allow us to reduce our use of fossil fuels and give Earth a chance to heal.

underwater plume mitigation with volcanic ash

From: tahoevalleylines, May 31, 2010 11:37 AM

It was a passing thought: has anyone experimented with volcanic ash spread over plumes of oil and or "disperant treated" oil? Seems closest to a natural process... The ash could be used even if hurricane season makes tanker suction problematic. Left in situ or vacuumed up later. Just sayin'.

Postings from tahoevalleylines can be seen other sites like theoildrum for Oil Interregnum railway component role. In James H. Kunstler's unnameable blog, see aspoarticle1037 posts. It would seem that PCI, claiming 28 brain trust luminaries, would have a credible & comprehensive section on rail transport?? Interim, see work by Christopher C. Swan "Suntrain Transportation Corporation", and book "ELECTRIC WATER" (New Society Press, 2007).

See you down the line.

the end of the oil age

From: marion, May 31, 2010 10:31 AM

Damn straight. Now all we have to do is get the rest of the country on board.


From: Floyd Ells, May 31, 2010 10:29 AM

I agree...but I'm afraid we're focusing on the short-term effects of oil shortages and overlooking the long-term results. There is no way that we farmers can feed the nation/world if we don't prepare for agriculture sans petroleum. Our present oil-dependent farming practices are UNSUSTAINABLE. Masses will starve if we don't get our act together SOON.

oil politics

From: tim blair, May 31, 2010 10:20 AM

Yes, Now is the time to wake up to the reality of oil industry corrupt power play business as usual continuing ,until they are pressured to do otherwise. All that defines BP as Buying Politics continues in the play of events in the Gulf , down to the Pr games and the downplaying of impacts of the spill As your article speaks of, the harder to get oil that keeps up our energy consuming lifesyle is now already escalating risk and destructive impacts on our planet , and our health and economy. THis tragic ecological and economic gulf states destruction and crisis is now the opportunity to push political and economic powers to reign in big oil and invest in renewable energy and technology development.Lets get fired up enough to demand these changes.Like those fishermen and pelicans and sealife in the Gulf, our faces are also covered in oil. Now what are we going to do about it?

Consider the horses....

From: Jane Bravery, May 31, 2010 09:15 AM

Agree totally. But can we spend some time working out intelligently what to do with the wildlife that is being cleared wholesale to make room for wind farms/solar arrays etc? There MUST be a way to protect pristine desert and other environments from the total clearing of the land, daily chemical washes etc needed for solar arrays to function? Taller poles even?
Wild horses are paying the price and are the canaries down the mine for all wildlife in targeted alternative energy development areas, (massive areas of our public lands).
THe last round up of 1,500 wild horses in Nevada cost 84 horse's lives, not including 40 late term miscarriages and the hooves of at least two foals being literally run off, after being chased for over 10 miles by helicopter over rocky mid winter terrain. THe deaths are continuing in govt holding pens where they join 37,000 other wild horses in an uncertain and, currently, desolate future.
For heaven's sake, can't we do better than this?

We got the power

From: Angel Dobrow, May 30, 2010 03:26 PM

Today's New York Times printed a cartoon pretty much summarizing our plight:

Frame 1 says "Drill, baby, drill",
Frame 2 "Spill, baby, spill",
Frame 3 "Kill, baby, kill" (Gulf plant and animal life),
Frame 4 "Fill, baby, fill" (American at the gas pump.)

The event horizon for the oil age.

From: Erich Vieth, May 28, 2010 10:11 PM

I agree entirely. We are looking at the beginning of the end of the age of oil. I thought you might find this article by Brynn Jacobs of Dangerous Intersection to be a useful supplement to the points you've made:

Elected officials should simply get out of our way.

From: Robert Wagner, May 28, 2010 03:36 AM

@JerseyGeoff There is nothing that elected officials can do to help. They have to get out of our way; which means to remove any and all legislative and agency barriers toward local food production and distribution. This can only be done on a State level, which is why I'm running for the Vermont Senate.

I know it's in the US Empire's culture to always appeal to higher authority for a 'fix'... however with the shrinking pie, there is no 'fix' coming. Technology will not provide a 'fix'. We have to grow and distribute food locally, like Cuba. Learn that, or go hungry waiting for a government 'fix', like North Korea!

From: KaD6, May 26, 2010 08:25 PM

Agreed. Our current way of life is not sustainable. We must power down. More people must be put on the land to grow food. The sooner the more lives will be saved.

Right On!

From: jerseygeoff, May 26, 2010 06:39 AM

This little essay hits all the points- but until "we the people" tell our elected officials what we want to do, nothing will happen. A huge increase in the motor fuels tax would be a big start, and one that several CEO's in Detroit have asked for, but it's considered politically unfeasible. I often say that Americans will drill thru the head of the last polar bear for the last drop of oil, and so far nothing I see or hear tells me differently. I'm sorry. The energy debate is also commingled with GOP vs Democratic politics--and I'd like to see that corruption ended- it merely delays and destroys the debate. Remember "Drill Baby Drill"? Now Bobby Jindal wants us to feel sorry for the ecosystem yet he hews to a party affiliation that refuses to truly address GHG and true conservation- voters in Louisana and everywhere else for that matter need to think about the choices they make.

Sadly I wish environmentalists would also join the debate more effectively by understanding the incredible intrinsic advantages that petroleum offers--drilling in ANWR will happen later, for god's sake now please institute horrendously strict environmental protections now , just in case, before the oil companies really get serious about drilling there. Once we start running out of oil in a big way, the average voter in Duluth or Dallas will quickly forget the need to keep the place as unspoiled as possible.
Since last Sunday, my wife and I have consumed 7/10's of a gallon of gas in our car-we walk and bike commute generally and measure our consumption weekly.

Easier than you think

From: Jimmy, May 26, 2010 01:56 AM

Dear Sir

I always love to read the clear - rational and impartial reasoning from yourself and the other wise men who are trying to perform a great service regarding crude oil production.

But alas, those that are aware overlook the most obvious solution to our problem, The incorrect suppression from mainstream thought of the Industrial Hemp plant.

This plant can do everything we need and do it every year without fail. Ok, its not a year round harvest, but that just means you grow more than you need during the summer to cover the leaner periods. Squirrels do this kind of thing all the time, I think we can make the leap from yeast to squirrel, don't you?

I don't want to be a party pooper, and advocating Hemp as a substitute and eventual replacement for crude oil does not invalidate any peak oil thought or endeavour, i see it as a natural evolution, The plant kingdom is the next most abundant resource base to tap. We are heading for a crash if nothing is done, but using the universal principle of least action, all we need to do is switch to Hemp and carry on as usual.

I'm a foot soldier who is on the march. Lets do it, Hemp for all!

From: Robin Datta, May 25, 2010 07:34 PM

Excellent insight from one of the sages of the Peak Resources insight. Getting this done will require stern measures. No person whose election or re-election depends on popular acquiescence can hope to succeed by even hinting at such prospects.

Non jacere margaritas ante porcos!

An added simple solution

From: Molly Brown, May 25, 2010 04:02 PM

Subsidize and radically expand Amtrak, because trains are the most efficient means of transport. Then develop and bring on line solar powered trains as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, tax low gas mileage cars and SUV's heavily, and use the money to support electric and hybrid cars.

simple solution

From: freepublictransit, May 25, 2010 12:52 PM

There is a simple action we could take immediately for the price of a small spill. Make urban public transit fare-free. Available now, low-tech, immediate payback, lasting benefits, change.