One of the leading environmental stories has been the recent explosion, fire, and sinking of the Trans Ocean/BP floating oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the subsequent oil spill that has been expanding by approximately 42,000 gallons of oil each day from an oil head 5,000 feet deep. According to the latest news reports, efforts are being made to stem the flow of oil, using ROVs to activate what is called a blowout preventer - a system of valves situated at the well head - but, as of this posting, they have not been successful. Alternatives include drilling relief lines to reduce the pressure, but that would take several months to complete.
In the meantime, the spill continues to spread and although a high pressure weather ridge, producing offshore winds, once slowed its advance, according to the Los Angeles Times, the first oil should reach the Louisiana shoreline by Friday. To many within the general public, particularly those living in the Gulf states that lie in the path of the oil spill, that's when it will become all too real. But what about the environmental impact right now?
Although the NOAA has reported that the spill is shallow (most of it apparently appears to be on the surface), it is coming from the bottom of the ocean floor up - as opposed to right from the surface, as with an oil spill from a ship. Does this have an impact on marine life - fish, plankton, etc. - as it makes its way up to the surface and then spreads out? While we are concerned with oil fouling local beaches, what about the migratory animals that might be moving through the oil far out at sea, well beyond our vision and, perhaps, our concern?
While efforts continue to stop the oil at the source, BP (British Petroleum) intends to conduct an oil burn-off, whereby sections of the oil spill will be isolated, condensed, and set fire. The burned oil will either sink or be removed from the surface. What is the environmental impact of burned oil on the seafloor bottom if it cannot all be collected? Unfortunately, any oil spill of any magnitude is an environmental disaster and as long as we continue to drill for oil - or expand ocean drilling, as proposed by the current U.S. administration - then we must accept the possibility of spills and the consequences that ensue.
This is the trade-off we struggle with. As we promote alternative forms of energy, there is no clear cut, totally environmentally-safe solution. Wind and solar are promoted as viable alternatives, but some conservationists say that expansive solar panel and wind tower farms are harmful to the environment. There are city ordinances that limit or prevent the use of wind and solar devices on individual buildings and the current cost is prohibitive for most residents. Hybrid or all-electric vehicles are advocated, but how will the extra demand for electricity be met? More nuclear or coal power plants?
As the politicians have said, we have an addiction to oil. But in fact, we have an addiction to energy. It runs your car, your lights, and the computer you are using to read this blog. And so, from wherever we get it - fossil fuels, wind, solar, nuclear, or something else, there will negative consequences; energy is just that kind of two-edge sword. We must do everything we can to prevent broad-based environmental disasters such as what is occurring in the Gulf of Mexico (Can oil companies channel their considerable technical knowledge toward the design of auto-shutoff valves, which could have prevented the blowout or the subsequent leakage?). And we must re-evaluate our entire energy system infrastructure and how energy is consumed at the user end.
No easy task. But do we have a choice?