Gulf Spill Serves as Referendum on the High-Energy Existence

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Brian Black is a professor of history and environmental studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom (Johns Hopkins, 2003) and with Gary Weisel the author of Global Warming (2010), part of Greenwood's Historical Guides to Controversial Issues in America.

As I write this, more than 200,000 barrels of oil per day is estimated to be gushing from the remnants of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, approximately one mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico.  The BP platform explosion, collapse, and now spill promises to reconfigure our ideas of the scale and scope possible in an industrial disaster.  Although the explosions immediately killed eleven oil workers, the fallout from the spill will temporarily destroy the economy and the ecology of an entire region.  President Barack Obama referred to it as “…a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster.”

No doubt the spill has earned a spot in the eco-disaster pantheon with Love Canal, Chernobyl, and Bhopal; however, by merely defining this spill in this way, we are missing the larger lesson that currently surrounds us and threatens to engulf us.  No mere environmental disaster, this episode is the latest industrial calamity to instruct us on the errant course we pursue in what global historian John R. McNeil refers to as our current “energy regime”—organized, of course, around the harvest and burning of fossil fuels.  As the environmental historian Alfred Crosby writes, “We are living off a bequest of fossil fuel from epochs before there were humans and even before there were dinosaurs.”

In Appalachia, the perch from which I most often contemplate such things, the costs of the harvest of fossil fuels is apparent each day.  We need neither a mining disaster, such as the April 2010 tragedy in West Virginia or the collapse of the slurry-ash retention pond in Tennessee from 2008, to know that we pay a dear price for deriving energy from, in the words of columnist Tom Friedman, “fuels from hell.”  Each day, we are reminded of this heritage by streams flowing orange with the sulfurous runoff of acid mine drainage, reclaimed flatlands where a mountain once stood, and emptied towns where once there was coal to be mined.

Less well known Is that this region was also the birthplace of humans’ intense relationship with petroleum just over one hundred fifty years ago.  When the first commercial well of crude was struck in Titusville, PA, in 1859, the development led to the first off-shore wells (located in the slight Oil Creek, which was only a few feet in depth) and the first spills.  Spills have always been part of humans’ use of petroleum, and there is little reason to expect that this can be altered.  Although much about our culture of energy has changed in a century and a half, much will always remain the same.

In one of the most dramatic changes, since the 1970s humans have clearly learned that fossil fuels are finite.  Understanding how this realization translated into super-sized SUVs and other American patterns of behavior, though, will be wrestled with by historians for generations (and it may be more appropriate fodder for psychologists).  Although it remains imperfect, today we clearly exist in an extended energy transition, which includes a heavy dose of denial. 

In 2010, the American transition is particularly bifurcated, finding one segment of the population more committed than ever to making renewable energy sources more primary, while another segment chants “Drill, Baby, Drill” to encourage development of each of our domestic reserves.  Together, these segments strive to make sense of recent occurrences as the cry becomes at least momentarily mumbled after thought of “Spill, Baby, Spill.”  As the Obama administration suspends plans to expand off-shore drilling, we are all moved to consider a basic question:  what is the proper response?

While the explosion may have occurred regardless, the Deepwater Horizon platform was equipped with technology to close the wells in such a situation:  the blowout preventer, a towering stack of heavy equipment five thousand feet below the surface of the Gulf, provided the industry’s rationale to claim that in 2010, off-shore oil development would be different.  On April 20, 2010, the blowout preventer did not function correctly for the Deepwater Horizon rig, and now BP resorts to another technical solution:  the relief well, which may take ninety days to drill.  In short, no better response exists in an industry primarily emphasizing increased production. 

We know that our energy future requires change and that our current patterns are unsustainable, and yet the folly of our current energy culture is most evident in the potentially toxic outcomes that can come from business as usual in the extraction of fossil fuels.  From Santa Barbara in 1969 to Valdez in 1989, the reminders of the outcomes of petroleum harvest spur public reaction unlike any other industrial disaster.  The reaction over the past forty years has been to call for reform and industrial regulation.  And still, the failures come, just as they did in the Oil Creek of the 1860s—and these are only the failures that we see. 

The truest indication of our ethic of extraction—our willingness to accept the costs of our need for cheap energy from fossil fuels—is our disproportionate reaction to spills close to home.  While the Gulf spill gathers immense media attention, the daily spills in locales such as the Niger Delta or the rainforests of South America go unnoticed and largely unmonitored.  We will not truly appreciate the magnitude of these industrial accidents until we find spills in less-developed nations as repugnant as those threatening American fishing and tourist businesses.

Worse, today’s microscopic disasters occur within the shadow of the macroscopic tragedy attributed by most scientists to the use of fossil fuels:  climate change.   Beyond the quibbling over degrees of change and who is to blame, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen looks at humans’ high-energy existence of the last century and argues that we need to name a new geological epoch after ourselves: the Anthropocene.  Our high-energy existence has altered the Earth that significantly, once we account for the lifecycle of these sources, from harvest to the emissions from combustion.

At this moment of energy transition, we must make these industrial disasters an opportunity for self-evaluation—to look in the mirror of conspicuous consumption and accept some of the blame ourselves.  The human and environmental decadence of our high-energy existence demands immediate reform.

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