What began on April 20th as a tragic industrial accident that claimed 11 lives is turning into an unprecedented ecological disaster.
People are already calling the massive eruption of oil in the Gulf of Mexico "America's Chernobyl," and, like that disaster, the Gulf oil mess will surely have significant implications for national energy policies: deep-sea oil drilling will now be seen to be on par with nuclear energy in terms of risk. It is difficult to imagine anyone again chanting "drill, baby drill".
News coverage and preparations have focused on the Gulf states and related environmental and economic impacts as the oil begins to take its toll on wildlife and the industries dependent on Gulf ecosystems, including fishing and tourism.
There is however a much more horrific scenario emerging that is only getting limited treatment in the media: that the Deepwater Horizon rig was drilling at the very edge of our technological capabilities and that the conditions on the ocean floor are so extreme, complex and dangerous that there may, in fact, be no way to control or stop the oil from gushing.
A report leaked to the media from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that if the pipe currently restricting flow breaks, the surge could increase to 50,000 barrels a day. Worse still, if the well head itself collapses under the pressure, the eruption would be completely uncontrolled – essentially an underwater volcano of oil. James Moore at the Huffington Post believes that the disaster may become a global one:
"[T]here is no way to know when and even if the well will ever be capped. In fact, if there is no plug placed in the hole, it is not inconceivable that no part of the planet's oceans will escape harm."
Paul Noel of the New Energy Congress also believes that the sheer size of the deposit into which Deepwater Horizon was drilling suggests that, if unchecked, the leak could poison all of the world's oceans:
"[T]he BP people are not talking, but this well is into a deposit that easily could top 500,000 barrels production per day for 10 or 15 years...The deposit is very big. It contains so much hydrocarbon that you simply cannot imagine it. In published reports, BP estimated a blow out could reach near 200,000 Barrels per day (165,000) They may have estimated a flow rate on a 5 foot pipe. The deposit is well able to surpass this The deposit is so large that while I have never heard exact numbers it was described to me to be either the largest or the second largest oil deposit ever found [covering] an area off shore something like 25,000 square miles. Natural Gas and Oil is leaking out of the deposit as far inland as Central Alabama and way over into Florida and even over to Louisiana almost as far as Texas. This is a really massive deposit."
Hopefully, the 100 ton "dome" that is to be lowered over the leak will work and the spill will be successfully controlled. If not, and if the surge continues for months and years, with Gulf currents carrying the oil into the Atlantic and beyond, we will be facing an environmental catastrophe beyond our imaginations – perhaps even the death of the world's oceans.
Such scenarios may be extreme. We must hope so.
Beyond hope, however, there must be the recognition that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is just the most recent and alarming warning that our present energy regime is itself a disaster and must come to an end. Continuing to plan for a built environment dependent on cheap fossil fuels can no longer be considered tenable. We must move much more aggressively on reducing energy inputs and on facilitating a transition to a society based not on the exploitation of hydrocarbons but on renewable sources of energy. This means that we must stop assuming that "people will always drive," or that goods and people will always be able to easily jet to and from metropolitan areas.
In short, I believe that the disaster in the Gulf lends just about the most powerful moral imperative imaginable to efforts to promote Smart Growth, densification, mass transit, high-speed rail, transportation electrification, re-localization and alternative energy.
And, as a warning, it may be the last one we get.