Πέμπτη, 8 Ιουλίου 2010

It might have been better for the environment to have done nothing about the enormous oil spill

Many millions of gallons of oil have poured in the U.S. Gulf since an April 2010 offshore Deepwater Horizon rig blast killed 11 workers and blew out a BP well. The spill has soiled 150 miles of U.S. coastline, imperiled multi-billion dollar fishing and tourism industries and killed birds, sea turtles, and dolphins. In Russia, we take care of such proplems immediately by throwing a nuclear bomb on the well, which melts all the rocks on the spot, sealing the oil well for good. No ifs, ands, and buts, just the Russian way of spot action!

It might have been better for the environment to have done nothing about the enormous oil spill. The aggressive cleanup operation, during which oil has been set alight and oil-dispersing chemicals have been dumped into the sea, is more damaging than the oil itself. Containing the oil out at sea but otherwise leaving it alone to disperse and evaporate naturally is better in the long run but is regarded as politically unacceptable.

Energy Eurocommissar Guenther Oettinger points out that no matter what regulatory regime is in place and how well supervised, it is the industry, the individual companies which are the first in line. They must take the issue of safety as absolute concern because they are aware that they bear full responsibility. They must maintain a 100% safety first policy from their side. Safety is non negotiable. In terms of operational and labour force safety, we have ascertained that the standards and principles set in European legislation provide for a high level of prevention.

On the question of liability, polluter pays is the underlying principle of our environmental liability system. Overall, legislation applicable in Europe built on it serves us well, addressing a wide range of risks and challenges associated with this kind of industrial activity. However, we have also seen that there is scope for improvement. Existing legislation could be made clearer and up to date. Be assured that, if proven necessary, we will not hesitate to come with legislative initiatives in the coming months.

Oettinger notes that utmost caution must be exercised for the moment with respect to new drillings. As said, given the current circumstances, any responsible Government would at present practically freeze new permits for drilling with extreme parameters and conditions. This can mean de facto a moratorium on new drills until the causes of the accident are known and corrective measures are taken for such frontier operations as the ones carried out by the Deepwater Horizon. Governments need to make sure that the industry launches all possible measures to further improve safety and enhance disaster prevention levels to meet the highest possible standards also in extreme climatic or geophysical conditions.

While specific measures linked to technologies used may meaningfully come only after the causes of the current accident have been fully investigated, immediate and precautionary steps towards reinforcing the level of prevention and preparedness can and must be taken already now. Emergency plans must be reviewed and strengthened on the basis of best practice.

Authorization procedures must require demonstrations of the capacity of the operator to deal with critical events in the particular conditions of the given operation. Equally, a demonstration of the financial strength necessary to assume full responsibility for damage caused is needed. We have to see what best instruments can be used in that regard, whether insurance obligations, a special European fund or some other adequately robust solution.

An offshore drilling ban cuts domestic energy production, raises energy costs, and shrinks the nation's economic pie. In USA, the broadest measure of economic activity, gross domestic product (GDP), drops $5.5 trillion by 2035. Employment levels fall below those projected to occur without a ban in place. By 2020, employment would be 1.4 million jobs lower than without the ban. By 2030, the projected gap reaches 1.5 million jobs. Of course, shrinking the economy makes families poorer. By 2020 the annual reduction in disposable income for a family of four exceeds $2,000. This lost income exceeds $3,000 per year in 2030 and is over $4,000 per year in 2035.

There have been around 30 major deepwater spills of more than 20 million gallons since the 1960s. The largest recent spill was in 1991 in the Arab Gulf as a result of the Gulf War when between 240 and 460 million gallons were spilled.

The largest previous spill resulting from a rig blowout like that of the Deepwater Horizon was the Ixtoc 1 off Mexico's Gulf coast in June 1979, which continued for 9 months during which more than 140 million gallons of oil was spilled.

The Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska in 1989 spilled around 10 million gallons. The chemically cleaned up areas have taken the longest to recover and they are still damaged. The areas that were left alone actually recovered much quicker. Chemicals were changing the nature of the oil in a very unfavorable way, making it more difficult for naturally occurring marine bacteria to break it down.

Nigeria has seen over 10,000 oil spills since 2005, many of them left to fester in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Decades of government mismanagement and corruption have lined the pockets of a small elite, while the vast majority of Nigeria's 150 million people survive on less than 2 euros a day. Because Niger Delta is so full of water, when spills do occur they impact much deeper than just the immediate site. A single spill can affect up to fifty communities, contaminating the water they depend on for drinking, cooking, and other every-day purposes.

Oil spill handling in the Niger Delta, when it happens at all, is often haphazard and inadequate. They dig six foot pits that are then filled with the contaminated soil and set on fire. The process not only emits further toxins into the environment but often leads to the uncontrollable burning down of crops and economical trees.

The average lifespan in the Niger Delta is 40, and you see people counting their days. Their days are filled with anguish and despair. No longer able to survive on the fruits of the earth and the bounty of the ocean, local communities have become dependent upon fish imported from other parts of Nigeria or abroad. And pollution has also rendered farming untenable. In some communities people grow what they can just to keep their families from starving, while in others the pollution has become so bad that residents have been forced to move, often into urban slums.

Since energy is a critical input for so many things, raising its cost will increase production costs throughout the economy. Though producers will pass most of the costs on to consumers, consumers will not be able to buy as much at these higher prices. Therefore, the higher energy prices cut the demand for all the other inputs, such as labor. As the higher costs for petroleum and natural gas ripple through the economy, there may be a few bright spots, such as suppliers of more energy-efficient capital goods, but the overall impact is decidedly negative.

Basil Venitis points out nuclear power is risky for investors, because it ties up more capital for longer periods of time than its main competitor, natural-gas-fired generation. Nuclear power makes economic sense only if natural gas prices are very high. Then, over time, the high initial costs of nuclear power would be offset by nuclear power's lower fuel costs.

Venitis notes that until recently, gas supplies were thought to be increasingly scarce, but recently natural gas reserve estimates increased drastically, because of technological advancements in shale rock drilling. So natural constraints are no longer in play and natural gas prices have returned to reasonable levels. Government efforts to force nuclear power plant construction will thus prove economically counterproductive.

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