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Groundhog Day for Oil

Timothy Egan, The New York Times
Wish it weren’t so, but I fear my lasting memory of many trips to Prince William Sound will be of hunched-over workers with toothbrushes, trying to scrub black tar from shivering birds and sea-worn rocks in the Alaska spring of 1989.

All the images were staggering: The birds looked lost and stunned, their coats of warmth matted black, their wings greased by hydrocarbons that would eventually kill most of them. The inlets of that most Edenic of sheltered seas had a sickening sheen, with a smell that made you nauseated and stayed with you through sleepless nights. Harder still was the sight of fishermen — tough, independent, weather-callused men — weeping for their loss.

But what stayed with me were those hundreds of workers with toothbrushes. They would labor all day, and maybe clean a rock or two — Sisyphus on the sound. After a while it was all public relations theater paid for by Exxon, whose tanker went aground and spilled at least 11 millions gallons into one of the richest marine cornucopias in the world.

Here now is the sad replay in the Gulf of Mexico, with that life-killing choreography. Then, as today, an oil company deployed booms and dispersants, tried to buy off fishermen with quicky legal settlements, and made resolute promises about restoration and doing the right thing.

In Alaska, we saw how that turned out: after nearly two decades of legal foot-dragging, Exxon got exactly what it wanted: a Supreme Court that consistently backs the powerful and well-connected reduced punitive damages from $2.5 billion to $500 million — in a good year, just a single week’s profit for the company.

It’s a waste of hope to wish that BP will be any more responsible or effective than Exxon was. And maybe it’s not their fault, in one sense: oil spills are acts of blunt-force trauma, and the remedies for cleanup remain primitive. The toothbrush brigade will soon be out, trying to save those nesting brown pelicans, symbols of a delta made rich by sediment carried from the Heartland…
(5 May 2010)

Oil disaster may prove tipping point for world oil production

Jeff Rubin, The Globe and Mila
What are the consequences of another Three Mile Island?

Will the unfolding environmental catastrophe from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico become deep-water oil’s equivalent to the Three Mile Island accident?

In terms of environmental degradation and economic cost, it’s already become much more. The real legacy of Three Mile Island wasn’t what happened back in 1979, though, but rather what happened, or more precisely didn’t happen, over the course of the next 40 years in the United States.

Literally overnight, the near-meltdown of the reactor core changed public acceptance of nuclear power plants. No company in the U.S. has built a new one since.

Deepwater Horizon was not a producing well, nor will it likely ever be one. Hemorrhaging anywhere from 5,000 to 25,000 barrels of oil every day, the spill is already approaching the size of the discharge from the Exxon Valdez. What’s worse, BP has no way to shut it off, short of drilling a relief well to divert the pressure, which will take three months. At 25,000 barrels a day, three months means a cumulative discharge of 2.25 million barrels of oil, or 94.5 million U.S. gallons (one barrel equals 42 U.S. gallons), or roughly eight Exxon Valdez spills. Even at 5,000 barrels a day, that’s almost 20 million gallons of oil. And to top it all off, by the time a relief well can be drilled, we’ll be smack in the middle of hurricane season.

The scene of hurricane-force winds raining oil on New Orleans and the rest of America’s Gulf Coast will no doubt make for an apocalyptic image of the end of the age of oil. Unfortunately, our dependence on the stuff will survive this catastrophe, even if the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico and the marsh ecosystems of the Mississippi Delta won’t. But what might also not survive is deep-water drilling: No company’s shareholders will be willing to accept the consequences that BP will soon have to face…
(5 April 2010)

Mother of all gushers could kill Earth’s oceans

Paul Noel, Pure energy systems
I really do think that the situation is getting further and further out of hand.

By yesterday morning, the nature of the crude had changed, indicating that the spill was collapsing the rock structures. How much I cannot say. If it is collapsing the rock structures, the least that can be said is that the rock is fragmenting and blowing up the tube with the oil. With that going on you have a high pressure abrasive sand blaster working on the kinks in the pipe eroding it causing the very real risk of increasing the leaks.

More than that is the very real risk of causing the casing to become unstable and literally blowing it up the well bringing the hole to totally open condition. Another risk arises because according to reports the crew was cementing the exterior of the casing when this happens. As a result, the well, if this was not properly completed, could begin to blow outside the casing. Another possible scenario is a sea floor collapse. If that happens Katie bar the door.

Possible Fix

I do not see any good possibilities from humans further fracturing the rock particularly at higher levels. That is the cap rock that is holding the deposit together.

I do see a possible use of explosives for favorable outcome. If a properly sized charge were applied in a shaped fashion around the drill pipe at some distance from it say 5 feet or so it is entirely possible that an explosive charge could pinch the pipe off similar to a hydraulic clamp. The resulting situation would vastly reduce the spill. Once you clamped off the pipe much more substantially say down to 1 foot or less opening the resulting pipe could be charge cut above the location and a tapered pipe fitted to it to collect any leaking oil. The end result would be to contain the spill and dramatically control any leaks because drill mud could then be entered into the pipe fitted to the exterior. In the end, the pipe could be controlled that way. The size of a charge to do this would be a few pounds not megatons.

A nuclear detonation carries the real risk of giving us the full doomsday scenario on this well. I just don’t like doing that. There is no coming back from the brink when you do that one. If it works, which I see as unlikely, great. If it doesn’t work, there is now a maybe a hole 1/4 mile across leaking oil. That looks worse than any possible outcomes otherwise…
(5 May 2010)

Peak Oil and the Return of the Jet Set

Sam Kornell, Miller-McCune
Sitting atop the queue in my inbox is an e-mail from a travel company advertising a $736 roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. Captain Cook discovered New Zealand in 1769; for the next 200 years the idea of visiting it, for an American, would have been alien to all but a few very wealthy individuals. Things change. As I write this, a ticket to travel 6,500 miles — one-quarter of the circumference of the Earth — is only a few clicks away.

But how permanent is that change? In the last decade, studies have consistently demonstrated that the world’s storehouses of oil are drying up. Oil is now being consumed almost four times faster than it is being discovered, and in early March, Kuwaiti scientists projected that we will reach peak oil production in 2014.

Preparations to electrify much of the country’s ground transportation are under way. But airlines have a problem: No battery is large enough to power a jet.

“Electricity holds great promise for substituting for a large fraction of the driving we do,” says Joseph Romm, a physicist who writes the blog “But it’s not a perfect substitute for liquid fuel. You’re not going to use electricity for air travel. We’re going to need an alternative.”

Developing a jet fuel alternative is vital not only to the commercial airline industry but also to the American military. The Department of Defense, the largest single oil consumer in the world, spends an enormous amount of money on jet fuel — more than $6 billion in 2006.
Unfortunately for both the DOD and the aviation industry, it will be difficult to duplicate the virtues of oil-derived jet kerosene. Jet fuel is compact and easily transportable, and it carries an immense amount of energy in a small volume.

…Unfortunately, the cost and availability of alternative fuels isn’t the only institutional problem facing the airline industry. Most climate scientists believe that stabilizing global carbon emissions and then reducing them by 60 to 80 percent by mid-century will avert the worst consequences of global warming. Without such reductions, they say, the world faces climate disaster.

…Peak oil and global warming “cast a big shadow on the long-term viability of aviation as a means of mass transport,” Alex Kuhlman, an aviation analyst based in France, told me. So serious is the threat, he said, that the airlines’ best strategy may be to “consolidate and plan for a deliberate and profitable contraction.”…
(6 May 2010)

Not So Fast: With Gas Prices Low, A Return To Oil

Steve Levine, The Oil and the Glory
A tried-and-true method of success is to zig while others are zagging. That explains a move afoot on the energy patch: While attention is focused on gas, a lot of players are quietly turning back to oil.

This may be jarring given BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the backdrop is the rush for shale gas properties around the world. Do the math: At current prices, natural gas is selling for about a third the price of oil on the basis of British Thermal Unit content – the equivalent of less than $30 a barrel of oil, compared with about $83 a barrel for oil itself.

Given the rock-bottom price of gas, almost no one has any prospect of meaningful earnings for at least the coming couple of years. Hence, we see the beginning of an attempt to hedge by digging in to oil again.

This is easier said than done. The U.S. itself has been picked over during the 140-year space of time since the birth of the oil age. And the BP disaster illustrates the dangers that lurk where the oil companies are locating big finds…
(5 May 2010)

Caution Required for Gulf Oil Spill Clean-Up, Bioremediation Expert Says

DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, ScienceDaily
With millions of gallons crude oil being spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the focus now is on shutting down the leak. However, in the cleanup efforts to come, “extreme caution” must be exercised so as not to make a bad situation even worse, says a leading bioremediation expert with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

“The concentration of detergents and other chemicals used to clean up sites contaminated by oil spills can cause environmental nightmares of their own,” says Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division who has studied such notorious oil-spill sites as the Exxon Valdez spill into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

“It is important to remember that oil is a biological product and can be degraded by microbes, both on and beneath the surface of the water,” Hazen says. “Some of the detergents that are typically used to clean-up spill sites are more toxic than the oil itself, in which case it would be better to leave the site alone and allow microbes to do what they do best.”

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig leased by energy giant BP that exploded on April 20, is now estimated to be disgorging some 210,000 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. To contain the spreading oil slick and keep it from polluting the fragile ecosystems of the Gulf coast and the Mississippi delta, clean-up crews have deployed an array of chemical dispersants, oil skimmers and booms. They have also attempted to burn off some of the surface oil. Such aggressive clean-up efforts are fraught with unintended consequences, Hazen warns. He cites as prime examples the Amoco Cadiz and the Exxon Valdez disasters.
(4 May 2010)