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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Just how evil is oil? Add to ...

On March 24, 1989, a supertanker rammed into a reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into its pristine waters. The images of oil-soaked seabirds are unforgettable. As many as 250,000 seabirds died, along with 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbour seals, more than 200 bald eagles and 22 orcas. Exxon Valdez instantly became a metaphor for the environmental devastation wrought by mankind in its incessant, unholy thirst for oil.

Will the Deepwater Horizon disaster be even worse?

It may well be. Nobody knows how much oil is gushing from the ocean bed, or how long it will continue. The leak could create a ripple effect that will spread throughout the food chain, from the plankton to fish to pelicans and dolphins. It could wreck fishery and tourism, and threaten Louisiana's fragile wetlands. Oil could be picked up by the "loop current," a sort of conveyor belt that will sweep it to the Florida Straits, then up the east coast of the United States. The pressurized subterranean reservoir might even keep venting unstoppably until the reservoir depletes. "They're going to have to clean up the Gulf of Mexico," predicts Matt Simmons, a retired energy investment banker.

Or … not.

Marine biologist Quenton Dokken is director of the Gulf of Mexico Foundation, a conservation group in Corpus Christi, Tex. He's also a veteran of the worst oil disaster in the region, the (so far) much larger blowout in Mexico's Bay of Campeche in 1979. "I was prepared for the worst," he says. But he hasn't found it. The oil is still offshore. The weather has co-operated. Because the oil is light, not heavy, the dilution ratio "significantly decreases the environmental threat." We won't see waves of black, tarry goo wash up on rocks, as it did in Alaska. There's no catastrophe, and possibly there won't be. Not everyone is relieved by this report, however. Mr. Dokken and his foundation have been attacked as "a puppet of oil and gas."

No matter what happens, the fallout will be severe. This disaster has simply reinforced the widespread conviction that no good can come from chasing after offshore oil. To many people, the cheap energy that fuelled a century of prosperity has now become a curse.

There will be lots of blame to spread around. BP, the oil giant that leased the rig, has spent a decade in efforts to greenwash itself. It rebranded itself "Beyond Petroleum," and spent heavily on PR while cutting costs on engineering. Meantime - as reporter Kate Sheppard writes in Foreign Policy - it fought against safety measures that might have prevented catastrophe. The rig it leased lacked a $500,000 remote-control shutoff switch, which is mandatory in Brazil and Norway but voluntary in the U.S. Under pressure from the oil companies, a U.S. government agency decided back in 2003 that this expensive gewgaw wasn't necessary.

Modern offshore drilling is made possible by engineering feats and technology that were unimaginable a few years ago. As the oil writer Tom Bower puts it, they "allow us to remotely guide a drill through a mile of water onto the seabed and then squirrel a 12-inch path through five miles of sand, salt, clay and rock towards a potential bonanza." Thanks to human ingenuity, we'll have oil for decades to come.

But now, there could well be a moratorium on new drilling for a long time to come - as well as tougher regulations and higher prices at the pump. The more the environmental carnage, the steeper the price will be.

"An oil spill is a very complex social and business event." writes Mr. Dokken. "The environment can be impacted, people's lives can be changed forever, political careers can be started and ended, and lots of money can be lost and made." An oil spill is also a modern morality play. And we're only in Act 1.

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