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America’s Achilles Heel: A Tale of Two Gulfs

Introduction

Americans may have a vulnerable Achilles heel made up of two gulfs: the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf .

This paper will look at how hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico, and a selection of other world events in the Persian Gulf, could turn off the oil spigot and bring the USA to a critical standstill, highlighting the urgency for the development of a different civilization, free of addiction to massive doses of oil.

Caribbean Hurricane Activity

I arose Sunday morning 31 August, 2008 and checked on the dramatic developments of Hurricane Gustav in the Gulf of Mexico.

Reports forecast that the hurricane would hit the Gulf Coast of America on Monday at possibly Category 4 or 5 fury. The target of the hurricane was around the coastal regions of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama . This meant that Gustav could swipe the coast with wind speeds of over 160 mph (260 kmph) and with a storm surge of 30 feet (9 m) and furious wave activity (Franks, 2008).

Unless one has experienced the full blown power of the elements it is hard to imagine what force such a hurricane can muster and over a widespread area with furious winds, torrential piercing rain, overwhelming flooding, and towering storm surge and waves.

And as if one massive overwhelmingly destructive hurricane was not enough, the National Hurricane Center (NHC, 31 August, 2008) showed on its satellite image another three potential hurricanes festering in the Caribbean and Atlantic. A total of four hurricanes lined up in battle formation against the Gulf Coast.

We can be grateful that Gustav eventually made landfall, weakened to a Category 2 hurricane with gusts of “only” 117 mph (188 kmph) – much less than the potentially catastrophic Category 5 it could have been.

Hurricane Gustav passed through the Gulf Coast without causing the widespread catastrophic destruction at the level that was feared. However, this is only the beginning of the hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center ’s (NHC, 1 September, 2008) satellite image shows five additional potential hurricanes lining up in formation from the Atlantic across to the Caribbean . Two of them have high potential danger to develop as high category hurricanes to furiously lash out in the Gulf and its coastal region.

Just two weeks after Gustav, Saturday 13 September, Hurricane Ike has had about a direct hit on Houston with 110 mph (176 kmph) winds. Ike reached landfall barely under Category 3, and had already forced the closure of a total of 14 oil refineries in Texas, stalling one fifth of US oil refining capacity (Burke, 2008; Nichols and Seba, 2008).

It now appears that the level of damage to both, oil fields in the Gulf itself, and onshore infrastructures on the coast was minimal.

But what could the effects be of dramatic weather conditions, in the Gulf, on the supply of American oil. Franks (2008) further commented on some of the precautionary measures taken against Hurricane Gustav when it was thought it could have strengthened to Category 4 or 5 force:


Energy companies shut down three-quarters of oil production in the Gulf and prepared for the strongest storm in three years to hit an area that produces a quarter of U.S. crude …

The following map (Cruise Bruise, 2006) shows the maritime locations (in white) of the neatly 4,000 offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico . This area is often the pathway of many hurricanes, posing potentially serious danger to these offshore installations and the supply of US oil.

A powerful hurricane passing through the Gulf of Mexico and across the Gulf Coast could wipe out much of the oil field installations, refineries and associated infrastructure. Not only do the Gulf oil fields supply about 25% of oil used by the US, but as much as half the US refining capacity is along this coast (Porretto, 2008). Such momentous events could be critically wounding for the American economy by slashing available petrochemicals by 50%!!

The strategic and yet vulnerable locations of oil refineries, along the Gulf coast and its hinterland, are shown on the map below by black dots (MSNBC, 2008):

All experts seem to agree, it is not a matter of IF, but WHEN will a hurricane from the Gulf cause widespread destruction of port facilities, industry, infrastructures, refineries and offshore oil field rigs and platforms. We would be naïve to shrug this off in unrealistic denial.

The Persian Gulf and American Oil

Up to about 60% of US oil requirements are imported. And a total of about 24% of US oil requirements are imported from the unstable or unpredictable Persian Gulf region. The Gulf nations that export to the US are: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (EIA, 2008).

This oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz which Iran says it will block if significant political or military developments threaten its county – that would halt 24% of US oil requirements from being imported into America . Also given a series of different, but concurrent events, in these countries, anything up to all of this imported Persian Gulf oil could be halted or lost.

The map below (Cole, 2008) shows the nations of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf chokepoint, the narrow strategically placed, yet vulnerable, Strait of Hormuz on the coast of Iran

A Great Loss

So from only these two gulf regions, the US supplies a threatening 49% of its total oil consumption. In an increasingly unstable world due to hostile weather, terrorism, political and civil unrest, and the geopolitics of civilization clash, it is quite possible that these sources of oil could dry up simultaneously. The loss of these imports would cut American supply anything up to 49%. While a 5 or 10% cut could be difficult to deal with, 30 or 40% (or more) could be absolutely catastrophic – economically, politically and socially.

Even more, coast-wide destruction of American oil refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, from hurricane activity, would cut out a crippling 50% of the American supply of petrochemicals – the massive critical implications for the US on all levels would be palpable in a powerful way.

Some may say that we can develop our own oil supplies from our own American oil fields, or develop other alternatives. Even if this was so, the development of new oil fields requires at least a 10-year lead time. And close investigation of many of the alternatives for oil shows that they are fraught with major difficulties, if all factors and the total context are taken into account. There is no comprehensive alternative for oil, and definitely none that is ready now!

Critical Effects on America

In the US very little electricity is produced from oil, only about 2%. However, coal, gas and nuclear energy make up for 88% of American electricity production (EIA, 2007). These facts, however, tend to mask the strong relationship of oil with electricity production. Scarce oil will have comprehensive pervasive effects on our civilization and its dependence on electrification.

Even the other energy resources for our society’s electricity production, coal, gas and uranium, need oil to fire up the mining machinery and transport vehicles to make them available. And as we have seen these three raw materials produce most of the electricity needed for our electrified modern hi-tech society. With scarce oil we won’t have a steady supply of coal, gas or uranium and the dramatic result could be electricity scarcity.

From a previous paper (Leigh, 2008a) I highlighted the effects, at all levels, of oil scarcity on electricity production.

It is likely that oil could begin to be much more scarce than many anticipate, and this could be accompanied by unexpected shocking consequences! One of these consequences could be electricity blackouts becoming permanent.

Reflect for a moment – imagine the catastrophic consequences of no electricity: no phones or computers, no industry which is electricity based, no dairy products or processed foods, no refrigeration, no water as the water pumps won’t work, no cars or transport because the petrol pumps won’t work, no schools or universities, no banks which can’t electronically process transactions, no employment, no income – dwindling stocks of everything as society collapses to unprecedented levels of chaos and deprivation.

This scenario is predicted by the Olduvai Theory which suggests that dwindling or rapidly decreased energy supplies, especially oil, will have critical effects on electricity production (Leigh, 2008b). The theory was developed by Richard Duncan (2000; 2006), and he has forecasted that such a set of events is imminent worldwide.

Some Final Directions and Conclusion

This paper has looked at the growing threat of oil scarcity from the two Gulfs.

We will now approach the problem from the point of view of a post-oil society, and make some suggestions on the way to go in that society, to be free of anxiety and critical problems of the threat of oil undersupply.

I will try to set the overall principles and approach of a new sustainable society. After all, there may be no choice but to accept the challenges of a simpler lifestyle very soon.

Mankind needs to drastically reduce its required energy levels sourced from petroleum. The future civilization will have to be clustered into local communities, and as much as possible be self-contained and self-sufficient with agricultural based economies, but not excluding, for example, local industry, services and shops. This decentralized civilization, with localized, largely self-sufficient communities, will automatically drastically reduce personal travel, packaging and transport for products, all amounting to great savings on energy requirements and raw materials.

So in this new civilization alternatives will have to be found for activities that once required large doses of energy. A quality of life is workable in post oil, but the orientation and values of mankind will have to undergo a serious change, even to the extent of a metamorphosis. A lifestyle in complete harmony with the physical and social laws surrounding us will actually mean that many will be healthier, both physically and psychologically. Emphasis will have to be placed on sharing and cooperation, to replace competition and strife, for the new low energy localized self-contained communities to work well in an unconflicted social environment.

It may not be a matter of whether we want to go this way or whether this is the lifestyle we want – there may be no choice! Actually the quality of human life and enrichment, it can be envisioned, will be even higher than we have now in both the rich and poorer countries of this present world.

Looming oil scarcity trumpets the end of the industrial civilization and life as we know it. Classical economic development ideas and principles, dependent on cheap oil and energy supplies, will soon be largely historic artifacts. A whole new approach and mindset is needed for a new civilization which will produce a quality and sustainable life. We will all need to embrace this new opportunity for a social community, living with harmonious behaviour within sustainable circumstances.

The two Gulfs making up the American Achilles heel could cause crippling effects on the US by turning off oil supplies. We could forestall much of the resultant debilitating effects by transforming our civilization now. That is the challenge for us all to meet.

References

Burke, J. Ike Forces Shutdown of 19% of US Refining Capacity, (Update 2), Bloomberg, 13 September, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601087&sid=as7kUPko62H4&refer=home

Cole, J. (2008) Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East , History and Religion, 31 May, http://www.juancole.com/2008_05_01_juancole_archive.html

Cruise Bruise, (2006) Cruise Ship Passenger Missing, 4 November, http://www.cruisebruise.com/Carnvial_Conquest_Passenger_Missing_Nov_4_2006.html

Duncan, R. (2000) The Peak of World Oil Production and the Road to the Olduvai Gorge, Geological Society of America, Summit, Reno, Nevada, http://dieoff.org/page224.htm

Duncan, R. (2006) The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population and Industrial Civilization, The Social Contract, http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/sixteen-two/xvi-2-93.pdf

EIA, (2007), (Energy Information Association), Net Production by Energy Source by Type of Producer, 22 October, http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat1p1.html

EIA, (2008), (Energy Information Association), US Imports by Country of Origin, Crude Oil, 26 August, http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/pet_move_impcus_a2_nus_ep00_im0_mbbl_m.htm

EPI, (2008), Energy Petroleum Institute, Energy Backgrounder, August, http://www.api.org/Newsroom/upload/08_August_Petroleum_Facts_at_a_Glance.pdf

Franks, J. (2008), Gustav Lashes Cuba on Way to Monster Storm in Gulf, Reuters, 30 August, http://uk.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUKN2541891320080830

Leigh, J. (2008a), Peak Oil and The Olduvai Catastrophe: Is There a Link? Energy Bulletin, 8 July, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/45804

Leigh, J. (2008b), A Geopolitical Tsunami: Beyond Oil in World Civilization Clash, Energy Bulletin, 1 September, http://www.energybulletin.net/node/46451

MSNBC, (2008) U.S. Oil refineries, Business: Oil and Energy, 13 September, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9118384/

NHC, (2008), National Hurricane Center , National Weather Service, 31 August, and 1 September, http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/

Nichols B. and Seba, E. (2008) Hurricane Ike Hits Heart of US Oil Sector, Reuters, 13 September, http://www.reuters.com/article/marketsNews/idUSN1339789020080913?sp=true

Porretto, J. (2008) Gustav Shutters Refineries on Gulf Coast, AP (Associated Press), Business Week, 1 September, http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D92TG70O0.htm

James Leigh, PhD. CGeog. FRGS.
Assistant Professor Cultural Geography
University of Nicosia, Cyprus
Personal webpage: http://www.freewebs.com/jas4

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