Nearly five months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, many Americans still lack a sense of scale when it comes to offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Quick: How many oil and gas structures are there in the Gulf today? A few dozen? A few hundred?
Answer: Roughly 4,000. And what does that look like? Well, if you lined them up end to end, the platforms would stretch from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, rising more than 10 stories above the ground and with a width nearly that of a modern aircraft carrier. It takes about 85,000 full-time workers just to maintain this offshore oil field, more than four times the number of workers in the U.S. space program.
What’s more, thanks to something called “directional drilling,” those platforms actually tap into 5,969 active wells. That means there are nearly 6,000 literal punctures in the Gulf floor where oil or gas is coming up. Deepwater Horizon’s collapse ruptured just one of those wells. And each well, of course, has a blowout prevention device of some kind, all of them carrying the now-dubious promise of permanent safety.
Did you have any idea how many wells there are in the Gulf? I certainly didn’t until I stumbled upon this story as a freelance writer several years back. The Washington Post had asked me to write about Cajun culture along the bayous of south Louisiana. So I grabbed a backpack and sleeping bag and actually hitchhiked—by boat—through this coastal region, thumbing my way from shrimp boat to oyster boat to crab boat. One night I snagged a ride on an oil-industry “supply boat” heading out into the northern Gulf to deliver tools to a platform dozens of miles away. What I saw over the next 10 hours changed my life forever. It shocked me so completely that I altered my career, becoming a clean-energy activist in the fight against oil dependency and global warming.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, it turns out, is just one exploding star in a galaxy of platforms and wells. That galaxy is way too big to fix with regulatory reforms alone. The only sustainable solution is to get off oil as fast as we can and get into electric cars and trucks. We can power most of those vehicles with renewable energy, including large supplies coming from modern windmills along our ocean shores. We can even make the switch in a few short years, not decades, if we truly commit.
Offshore energy doesn’t have to ruin us, in other words. It can actually help save us. After a long summer of blackened beaches, that’s a good thing to know.
I first traveled into the Gulf’s oil maze in May 2000 with a Cajun boat captain named Tee Brud Griffin. He and I sat in the wheelhouse of his 160-foot-long, steel-hulled ship. We had just left the Louisiana coast, headed southeast toward a distant drilling rig, when Tee Brud (his name means “little brother” in Cajun French) grabbed a nautical chart and unfurled it across a table.
He gestured toward a seemingly endless expanse of small black squares spread across the chart, filling the water from the Texas coastline all the way to the Florida panhandle. The greatest concentration of squares was off the coast of Louisiana. “Each one of those represents a different platform,” he said.
So many squares. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But proof was just outside the boat. As darkness fell, the first actual platforms were coming into full view. We were passing within a few hundred yards of the titanic structures, their steel-and-concrete legs plunging into the water, their heliports and cranes towering hundreds of feet above the waves. Land was still visible behind us as I began counting. A dozen platforms were already within sight.
Griffin drew my attention back to the nautical chart. “They even form constellations,” he said. “The platforms, they form constellations.”
Sure enough, so numerous are these manmade structures that they group themselves into shapes not unlike the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross. With his finger, Griffin drew the “Bunny Ears,” the “Barbeque Pit,” and the “Circle Field”—all formed by real platforms, some rising to enormous heights above the sea. Boat captains often “navigate” by these shapes, he said.
Outside, the platforms continued to roll by, roaring with the sound of giant diesel generators, humming with the knocks and bangs of drilling and pumping. Some were crowned with gas flares stretching 10 feet high, burning off excess natural gas.
Why, I wondered, doesn’t every American know this imagery of Gulf platforms as well as we know the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge or the awesome size of the Grand Canyon? What an indictment of our media and of our political leadership. What a measure of our addiction to oil and the depth of our denial.
Addiction and denial. How else to explain our lack of collective understanding, even now, of just how huge the drilling operation is in the Gulf?
We were surrounded—engulfed—by the ugly, noisy universe of mechanical towers, each brilliantly lit up with a range of hazard lights and dormitory lights and scattered flares. It was a clear night in the Gulf, and the real stars were very bright above, creating the impression—fantastic but unshakable—that these rigs really were reflections of the twinkling lights of the cosmos.
This, in sum, is what 1.2 million barrels of oil looks like. That’s how much oil we extract from the Gulf of Mexico every day. There’s been no significant slowdown in the wake of the BP disaster. You’ve heard of “too big to fail”? This is “too big to regulate.” There are simply too many wells, too many platforms. It’s just luck, essentially, that we made it this long without a colossal spill. And more spills are coming, guaranteed, in the future, huge ones, made worse as the drilling moves to even deeper and riskier waters. Shell Oil already operates a platform appropriately named “the Mars Unit,” now pumping oil 130 miles offshore in the central Gulf—nearly three times farther out than Deepwater. Last March Shell completed work on the world-record holder, drilling through 8,000 feet of Gulf water. Named “Perdido,” the platform’s underwater hull—from top to bottom—is nearly as tall as the Eiffel Tower (984 feet). By itself, Perdido can tap up to 35 wells.
So of course we need air-tight regulations every step of the way. Thank God the U.S. Department of the Interior is reorganizing its oversight staff to minimize corporate coziness. And yes, as a bottom line, we need a secondary “relief well” drilled simultaneously with the main production wells.
But none of this will ever be enough. Ever. The scale is too big. Human error will always be an “unsafe” element when this many human beings are involved. Catastrophic equipment failure will always be just around the corner as long as this much equipment is roaring and rattling in the Gulf. Worldwide, every year, accidental oil spills dump 200 million gallons into the environment. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita poured into the Gulf region 12 million gallons that were being held in aboveground oil storage facilities, on platforms, in pipelines, and on a tank barge.
And every day, even when drilling works as planned, we “spill” global warming pollution into the atmosphere from the combustion of that same oil. That’s 4.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from American cars and trucks alone, day after day. This while hurricanes get stronger and sea-level rise threatens cities from Miami to Mumbai.
But for me it was touring the Gulf oil field with Tee Brud Griffin that finally convinced me our fragile atmosphere was in big, big trouble. We humans were clearly up to the task of mega-level destruction, I realized. I returned to my home state of Maryland and soon became a full-time climate activist. Some pundits have taken to calling south Louisiana our “National Sacrifice Zone” following the great storms of 2005 and the oil spill of 2010. But with climate change, we are all from Louisiana.
All of us.
Ironically, the same week the Deepwater Horizon rig sank in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of the Interior approved America’s very first offshore wind farm. The nod went to the much-publicized Cape Wind project in Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound. Using 130 modern windmills, with blades 180 feet long, this project alone could ultimately produce 450 megawatts of clean electricity, enough to power nearly all of Cape Cod.
Even more ironic, the same day as the BP blowout, the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium released a report showing there was enough offshore wind potential in the state to easily power 750,000 homes—forever. Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s Republican governor, had been screaming “Drill, baby, drill” louder than anyone else in America prior to Deepwater Horizon. He led the fight to try to end the mid-Atlantic drilling moratorium. Now he doesn’t talk about drilling so much.
What connects Massachusetts and Virginia is this: Both coastlines fall along something geologists call the Mid-Atlantic Bight. This is the continuous, shallow platform of the continental shelf that runs roughly from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The water depth and proximity to the populous East Coast makes the bight nearly perfect for offshore wind development. Across nine states and 600 miles, it presents the best alternative vision we have to the Gulf Coast nightmare: a clean-energy shoreline capable of creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Researchers at Stanford University and the University of Delaware reported that this offshore region, by itself, could produce the equivalent of 70 percent of America’s current electricity generation.
Production at that level won’t come overnight, of course, and we’ll have to figure out how to transmit it all. But you get the point: There’s lots and lots of wind out there. As a nation, we need radically improved energy-efficiency standards plus big gains in solar, land-based wind, and sustainable biofuels. Efficiency is especially important. Europeans use roughly half the energy per capita that Americans do. Clearly we can do better. But offshore wind, especially in the Mid-Atlantic Bight, can and must play a huge role in America’s clean-energy future. It will help us prepare, post spill, for getting our cars to run on electrons, not gasoline.
Those electric cars, meanwhile, are definitely on their way. At least 10 automakers are preparing to launch plug-in models between 2010 and 2012. Tesla Motors, focusing exclusively on electric vehicles, became the first U.S. automaker in 50 years to go public, joining the Nasdaq Stock Market last June.
But what’s the downside of powering much of our economy, including tens of millions of cars, with offshore wind power? What would dozens and dozens of wind farms from New England to the Carolinas do, for example, to birds? After recent images of oil-blinded pelicans and tarred herons in the Gulf, the energy-avian nexus is a particular concern.
Thankfully, beginning with the Cape Wind project, the news is good. A federal environmental impact study, exhaustive in scope, found there will be no significant threats to avian populations from the project. The vast majority of migratory birds fly well above the blades, and most resident birds fly below. The slow rotation speed of the blades further minimizes accidental contact. As a lifelong birder, I was particularly pleased to learn that Massachusetts Audubon—New England’s largest conservation organization—supports Cape Wind. By law, all additional wind farms in federal waters will come under similarly intense scrutiny before a single turbine can be installed. Europe’s experience with 38 existing offshore wind farms has also shown astonishingly low bird mortality over a broad area and over several years.
What about the visual impacts? How will the windmills look? Here, too, the news is good. Wind industry officials say the vast majority of future East Coast turbines will be roughly 10 miles or more out to sea. This means from the beach each windmill will be less than the size of your thumbnail when you extend your hand fully out from your face. In summer the heat and haze will probably erase even that small image while leaving your beach motel fully powered by the same breeze blowing through your hair. Cape Wind, admittedly, is an outlier here, with some of its turbines as close as five miles to the shoreline. The loud opposition of some local residents is one reason why most wind power developers are now moving farther offshore.
Finally, in terms of conventional pollutants, there’s little need to review the obvious benefits of wind power versus oil. It’s interesting, however, to consider the worst-case scenario—when something really does go wrong—with each of these energy sources.
For oil, the worst surely happened this summer. Beyond the fuel’s direct contribution to climate disruption, it’s hard to comprehend a substance so dangerous that a single well can create a spill visible from outer space and capable of rendering much of the Gulf of Mexico biologically dead. Here’s a pertinent fact I can’t shake from my mind: After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the ecologically and commercially valuable Pacific herring never returned to Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The fishery collapsed, and the herring population never came back. Never.
And oil dispersants—with all their toxicity—were barely used after the Valdez spill. In the Gulf, however, more than two million gallons of Corexit has been released from the air, distributed on the surface, and injected underwater. It’s what created the orangish tint in the Gulf for months, spawning the nickname Agent Orange among local people. Long-term effects? Who the hell knows?
And offshore wind power? When Cape Wind is complete you’ll be able to kayak out to the windmills and swim around the towers. You’ll be able to buy coastal property without fear of ruination by energy. Worst-case scenario? How about a hurricane? Let’s say a hurricane blows through any part of the grand line of turbines envisioned along the Atlantic Bight. It knocks down 10 or 20 or 200 of the wind towers. Complete destruction. What would be the result? Answer: A few thousand gallons of benign mineral oil—maybe—which is used in the transformers to prevent power loss due to heat. Microscopic in size, by comparison.
No need for Agent Orange.
Last May, as the oil disaster deepened in the Gulf, I revisited many of the same Cajun people I first met during my hitchhiking odyssey more than a decade before. I arrived in Leeville, Louisiana, just as one shrimper was hugging his wife goodbye, tears streaming down her face. The spill had just put him out of work, interrupting a 40-year fishing career. He was now headed off to work for BP, laying boom along some distant shore. When he would see his family again was unclear.
It’s telling that for much of this past summer, TV ads flooded the airwaves along the Gulf coast with lawyers on the screen: “Have you been harmed by the oil spill? Do you have an attorney? Do you know all your rights?” It seems like everyone wants to sue somebody along this long-suffering shoreline. I saw men next to one Louisiana highway putting up a billboard: “Do you have documents you need to destroy in a hurry? Use our emergency paper-shredding service.”
The feelings of fear and anxiety and anger are understandable, of course. Oil is an ugly addiction, and it often brings out perverse and ugly behavior, from the war in Iraq to the greed that led to rampant safety violations just prior to Deepwater Horizon’s explosion.
And still there’s talk among some on Capitol Hill of the “inevitability” of more drilling, which could happen in deeper waters. Even now. Heroin addicts, I’ve read, will shoot up in their toes when all other veins fail.
But I don’t think we’re headed that way with energy, not with the timely arrival of offshore wind and other renewable sources. Europe already has 38 offshore commercial wind farms in operation. Cape Wind could be up and running within 24 months, and many more projects will soon follow. Polls, meanwhile, show U.S. public support for new drilling is fading, and virtually every politician who once chanted “Drill, baby, drill” now fantasizes about owning a time-travel machine.
Here’s what really inspires me. Former Vice President Al Gore sounded the alarm on global warming with his brilliant 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth. But the film was criticized for being short on solutions. So afterward Gore hosted a series of high-profile “solution summits” around the globe involving the best and brightest minds from the renewable energy world. In 2008, equipped with input from CEOs and engineers and scientists, Gore toured the United States, communicating what he had learned. America, he declared, has the ability to switch entirely to clean, renewable electricity within 10 short years. We already have all the essential technology we need, he said. Ten years. Along the way we can electrify a big part of our automobile fleet, Gore and others have said, charging the car batteries mostly during off-peak hours without overburdening the grid.
Having spent the past 10 years focused on clean energy, motivated by what I saw in the Gulf, I’m certain we can achieve this goal. There are challenges before us, of course. We need a strong national cap on CO2 pollution that steers energy markets away from carbon and toward offshore wind and other solutions (see images in “Power Play,” above). We need a national integrated electrical grid, a “smart grid,” that can effectively distribute the fluctuating supply of wind and solar power on a large scale.
And we’re making progress. The nation’s economic stimulus plan includes a robust $3.4 billion to develop a smart grid. My state of Maryland, among others, has begun investing in statewide refueling stations for electric vehicles. Maryland could get the lion’s share of its future electricity from offshore wind, too, according to a February report from the highly respected Abell Foundation in Baltimore.
But as a nation, can we do it? Can we get off oil—or nearly so—in a decade or less? Can we fully develop resources like our windy East Coast in time?
Richard Garvine, a professor of marine studies at the University of Delaware before his passing in 2007, coauthored the study that year that first catalogued the staggering wind potential of the Mid-Atlantic Bight. Developing this 50,000-square-mile region into its full potential, he said, is not a matter of technology. It’s a matter of national will.
“The United States began producing 2,000 warplanes per year in 1939 for World War II,” Garvine said. “[We] increased production each year, and by 1946 had sent 257,000 aircraft into service. We did that in seven years, using 1940s technology.”
Seventy years later we need to protect our shores again from attack. We just need another big dream—a self-preserving vision—to make it so.
Mike Tidwell is the author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana's Cajun Coast (Vintage). He is also the executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.