Learn, baby learn

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By John Pawlak

Urtabulak and Ixtoc — two obscure names that can be found in the dusty (and unread) journals of historic blunders. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Let’s go back 47 years and see how little we’ve learned.

In 1963, a natural gas well in Urtabulak (southern Uzbekistan) burst into flames, shooting a burning pillar 400 feet into the air. The Soviets had not developed sufficient control mechanisms and so it burned for three years with 12 million cubic meters of gas burning every day (over three cubic miles of gas burned). After countless attempts and strategies to quell the fire, the Soviets finally found a solution in 1966 ... they nuked the well. As drastic as that may sound, it worked.

In 1979, an offshore oilrig (named Ixtoc) in the Bay of Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and leaked oil into the gulf for nine months, spilling a total of 150 million gallons of oil. The efforts to stop the leak were identical to those used by BP over the past month (submersible robots, dispersants, burning it off, boom floats, a huge containment dome, a heavy dumping cover and finally drilling relief wells).

It’s easy for people to blame BP for the recent oil spill disaster. They cut corners on quality and safety procedures to save a buck (a lot of bucks, actually). Sadly, when this is all over and becomes yet another line in a dusty unread history book, BP execs will probably get huge bonuses for finally containing the spill.

But back to the blame and lessons unlearned.

Regressive politicians were quick to blame environmentalists for the spill (yeah, I had to read that several times myself before realizing it wasn’t a joke). The bureaucratic MMS (Minerals Management Service) is another good blame-sink, rich in incompetence and corruption. The Bush-Cheney administration likewise deserves much of the blame as they presided over the reduction of oversight and drilling regulations (discounting the requirement for remote shut-off switches). And President Obama deserves some blame too. As they say, the buck stops there and it’s only fair given that his administration caved to the “Drill Baby Drill” mantra and expanded the offshore drilling efforts by ending the moratorium on oil exploration along the East coast.

Where was I? Oh yeah, who’s the blame for this mess? Consider the damages ... the brown pelican, once brought back from the verge of extinction, could likely meet its oily end. Also threatened are the Blue Fin tuna, Kemp Ridley turtles and manatees. As a popular mouthpiece might point out, “Those rabid pelican extremists forced us to take unnecessary risks!”  Yeah, let’s blame the gulf shrimp, oysters and blue crabs while we’re at it.

No, I think we’re missing the point here.  As much as I’d like to plug the leaking pipe with Tony Hayward’s head, the core blame lies with America’s unquenchable thirst for oil. In 1970, the U.S. imported 24 percent of its consumed oil. President Nixon called it an “energy crisis” and warned of the dangers of foreign oil dependence saying, “Our independence will depend on maintaining and achieving self-sufficiency in energy.” Nixon vowed to lead America to self-sufficiency for its energy needs by 1980. The Drill Baby, Drill oilaholics argued that “it would take too long” to resolve our energy needs and hence no advancements on alternative energy research were made.

By 1979, it was President Carter’s turn. He again highlighted the dangers of our increasing oil consumption and promised to lead the nation to energy self-sufficiency.  Again, the “more oil solves everything” argument won out and nothing was done to address the problem.

Today we import nearly 70 percent of our oil consumption. Despite the obvious need to accelerate real alternative energy research, oily politicians are still leading the chant — “Our only solution is to drill, drill, drill.”  Well baby, baby, baby, when will you ever learn, learn, learn?

Maybe we should take a hint from the Soviets, put our sights on those rabid environmentalists and nuke the pelicans.