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Drill, baby...oops!

The news from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is not good. If the NOAA estimates are right about the size of the spill it could dwarf Exxon Valdez:

Over the last few days, estimates had held that the Gulf of Mexico oil spilling was leaking about 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, into the water each day--bad, but still not historically bad on a scale like the spill caused by the Exxon Valdez. Except now, after closer investigation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that oil company BP's estimate might in fact be five times too low.

Rear Adm. Mary Landry, the Coast Guard's point person, gave the new estimate yesterday as the Coast Guard began its planned controlled burn of some of the oil. While emphasizing that the estimates are rough given that the leak is at 5,000 feet below the surface, Admiral Landry said the new estimate came from observations made in flights over the slick, studying the trajectory of the spill and other variables [The New York Times]. Because the oil below the surface is so hard to measure or estimate, NOAA's numbers are still rough estimates, too. BP's chief operating officer told ABC News he thinks the number is probably somewhere between the two estimates.

But if NOAA's high-end number right, the oil spill caused by the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon just entered a new class of awful. Do the math: At the previous estimation--1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) of oil per day--it would have taken this spill 261 days, or more than eight continuous months, to dump as much oil into the sea at the Exxon Valdez did near Alaska in 1989. But, if it's true that 5,000 barrels (210,000 gallons) are entering the Gulf each day, it would take just 53 days to top the Valdez' total of 11 million gallons. Already 9 days have passed since the explosion.

Moreover, as the Wall Street Journal Reports, the well doesn't have a particular sort of emergency automatic shut-off standard in Norway and Brazil - although there's some question of whether the shut off would have worked, the oil industry in the US apparently argued against the necessity of these devices:

The efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident. When wells do surge out of control, the primary shut-off systems almost always work. Remote control systems such as the acoustic switch, which have been tested in simulations, are intended as a last resort.

.Nevertheless, regulators in two major oil-producing countries, Norway and Brazil, in effect require them. Norway has had acoustic triggers on almost every offshore rig since 1993.

The U.S. considered requiring a remote-controlled shut-off mechanism several years ago, but drilling companies questioned its cost and effectiveness, according to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The agency, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, says it decided the remote device wasn't needed because rigs had other back-up plans to cut off a well.

The U.K., where BP is headquartered, doesn't require the use of acoustic triggers.

On all offshore oil rigs, there is one main switch for cutting off the flow of oil by closing a valve located on the ocean floor. Many rigs also have automatic systems, such as a "dead man" switch as a backup that is supposed to close the valve if it senses a catastrophic failure aboard the rig.

As a third line of defense, some rigs have the acoustic trigger: It's a football-sized remote control that uses sound waves to communicate with the valve on the seabed floor and close it.

Meanwhile, the potential effect on fisheries and associated livelihoods, thousands of unique species and residents are likely to be disastrous. Among the potential victims:

The Gulf region contains about five million acres of wetlands, which are an essential habitat for three quarters of all of the migrating waterfowl that cross the US.

There are more than 3,300 marine species in the Gulf, including six endangered species of whale. Its shores include the only known nesting beach of Kemp's Ridley, the world's most endangered sea turtle. There are also populations of protected Hawksbill, Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles, which are about to begin their nesting season and would be particularly vulnerable to oil washed up on beaches.

There are several shark species declared to be "of concern" because of declining populations. The Gulf is also home to one of the world's largest populations of bottlenose dolphins, with an estimated 45,000 in its waters.

It is interesting that this emerging situation is occurring at the same time as the final approval of Cape Wind, the controversial wind farm held up by NIMBYism and shortly following Obama's opening of offshore drilling. Our future as a society is going to involve a certain measure of raping the environment - we know this. We have been casual about the consequences we can see, and reluctant to make visible the full consequences of our extraction - we assume that our resources are clean if we don't have to live near the pollution they engender. This, of course is not true.

It is easy to cry "Drill, baby, drill" and harder to live with the real world consequences of our consumption - increasingly hard. And there aren't a lot of good answers - but one of the things I think is essential is that we understand what we are talking about. It is easy to march to close a coal plant - and it is necessary that we do close them. But unless we are prepared to bring our electrical generation home, to do with less and to find ways to live with less, that march is meaningless. We can't oppose offshore drilling and drive around as much as we like, nor can we support offshore drilling...except when it might affect our lives and livelihood.

Americans live in a world where there's so much "away" - we laud ourselves for reductions in pollutants that we have merely offshored, we laud ourselves for costs that we have merely deferred upon the next generation. We throw "away" so many things, and push "away" so much knowledge. I'm deeply grieved about this oil spill, and I hope from it may emerge a little more knowledge, a little more recognition that there is no such place as "away"

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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