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August 04, 2010

Reality TV or Horror Movie?

This summer's most gripping reality TV show took place 5,000 feet below sea level in the Gulf of Mexico and starred plumes of crude oil gushing 24/7. It looked like the broadcast might get canceled at one point, but popular demand (and Congressman Ed Markey) kept it on the air. But now, 107 days later, it looks like the Macondo well might finally get capped for good in the next few days.

I'll be glad when it's finally over, but I won't be ready to celebrate.

Back in April, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and the oil started flowing, everyone seemed stunned when BP said that, based on the "worst-case scenario," it might take up to three months to permanently stop the Macondo leak by drilling relief wells. Three months?!? What business did anyone have risking a disaster that takes three months to fix?  

But BP was right: This has been a worst-case scenario all along. When the well is plugged, we'll be closing Chapter One of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. But not the last.

The biggest mistake anyone can make is to assume that a disaster like Macondo/Deepwater spill couldn't happen where they live. In reality, oil spills happen all the time and all over the place. Just last month, we saw horrific photos of oil-soaked workers after a shore-to-tanker pipeline exploded in Darian, China. It looked pretty bad, but the Chinese (as you might expect) were quick to play down the severity of the leak. Perhaps a little too quick, as the New York Times reported today:
"…an investigation by the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace and accounts by two experts with authoritative knowledge of what happened make a compelling case for an alternative account. The Greenpeace report, issued last week, said that as the fire from the explosion spread, large quantities of oil were deliberately released from onshore tanks to avert devastating damage to a tank at the storage facility that was filled with dimethylbenzene, a flammable and poisonous gas used to make aviation fuel and solvents. Had the oil fire reached that tank, the report said, the resulting explosion could have released a toxic cloud endangering the entire area.

This week, two experts with detailed knowledge of the accident confirmed that account, with one saying that the cloud could have killed thousands of people."

Thousands dead? Could an accident like that happen at one of the Gulf Coast's ports? Would you trust BP if it said "no way"?

Last week saw another oil disaster -- this time closer to home -- when an Enbridge Energy pipeline burst and dumped nearly one million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, which runs directly into Lake Michigan. The oil didn't make to that Great Lake, but it did foul 30 miles of the Kalamazoo and force some residential evacuations because of concerns about air quality.

The pipe that burst, though, is actually part of one of the largest networks of pipeline in the world. Its purpose: to carry dirty tar-sands oil from Canada to distribution points throughout the Midwest. Ultimately, the oil companies want to pipe it all the way to refineries on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Tar-sands oil belongs in a horror movie, not a TV show. First, you clear-cut ancient boreal forest. Then you expend jaw-dropping quantities of energy and water to grind up the earth and extract tiny bits of crude. The whole process leaves behind toxic lakes so big they can be seen from space. In Alberta, unlucky flocks of ducks that have landed on these lakes have died almost instantly.   

The goal is pipe this nasty crude across Illinois, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. Along the way, it would traverse the giant Ogallala aquifer, which produces about 30 percent of the ground water we use for irrigation and provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within its boundaries.

Personally, I don't want to live in a reality TV show, and I don't want my family exposed to the kinds of risks that Big Oil and its supporters in Washington, D.C., seem to think are no big deal. Especially since it's pointless -- we already know how to reduce our dependence on oil enough to make these risks moot. Let's celebrate when we've plugged that hole.

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