As we tap out the last of the Earth's "easy oil," exploration moves into more experimental territory. Riskier territory. More remote and, too often, more environmentally vulnerable territory.
As our world continues in its fire-breathing-vampire-of-petroleum ways, we're likely to see more frequent and more devastating spills like the Deepwater Horizon, as geologist Chris Rowan's blog over at ScienceBlogs rather chillingly warns:
In an attempt to quench this thirst, attention is moving into more technically challenging areas, with more complex geology and often in the deeper waters of the outer continental shelf. The increasing complexity of the equipment required to drill in such areas increases the number of things that can go wrong, and the location of the drilling makes dealing with catastrophic failures much more difficult, as we are seeing all too clearly this week.
As the world's desperation for oil piques and the cost of oil increases, oil companies will be more and more inclined to ignore risk. Already we see the hungry, lidless eye of big oil gazing with lust at the oil fields of the Arctic, where decreasing sea ice, ironically driven by global warming, is making exploration there more economically attractive. We need to put a lid on that -- and a damn sight faster than BP is putting a lid on the Gulf spill.
In a move that I like to think of as one of the more encouraging examples of human foresight, the world put a moratorium on oil exploration at the other end of the word, in the Antarctic, a few decades back. OK, it took some coaxing from folks like us, but the bottom line is that the Antarctic is protected from the kind of catastrophe we're seeing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Chris Rowan concludes that since oil demand isn't going away, and the oil companies are going to be reaching further, regulation needs to mitigate the danger of future spills:
[Oil] demand is driving drilling in places where accidents of this sort - major, hard to stem leaks - are going to be a major risk, and our safety regulations should be evolving to adjust to this new reality. As a start, I'd propose that emergency shut-off valves cease to be an optional extra on drilling rigs.
All well and good. But we can go further.
As a start, I'd propose a ban on drilling in the world's most vulnerable oceans. As a start, I'd propose making the polar seas off limits to oil rigs, oil exploration, and oil transport.
As a start, we can all speak out to demand marine reserves to protect 40% of our world's oceans, and making them off-limits to oil.
We can't get out of oil and coal fast enough. But until we do, sure, regulate the wells that we must drill. But let's not just make it harder to make mistakes like the Deepwater Horizon. Let's make it impossible to make those mistakes in the world's most productive and vulnerable ocean areas.
Let's keep oil out of the places that are still pristine.