BIDDEFORD – After 40 days and 40 nights, the oil leak has taken on epic proportions. We can expect another 40 days and 40 nights, perhaps more.

Confronted daily by anguish on the faces of those whose livelihood and native lands are destroyed in slow motion and readily available footage of life-sustaining ecosystems and majestic birds coated in sludge, there is little or no consolation.

British Petroleum, the once-invincible company, and its shareholders will likely go the way of the dinosaur. More significantly, so will critical portions of the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf Coast.

The hole in the Earth humbles us. The impossibility of containing the oil slick and cleaning it up is sickening.

Within the grasp of all is the fact that our use of advanced technology to feed a consumer addiction brings us face to face with complete loss of control.

Lacking an ethical foundation delineating antisocial behavior, or effective regulation to temper profit-maximizing behavior, big oil stumbles headlong into its Waterloo.

The accident has been serious from the start. The human toll was immediate with the loss of 11 workers. It’s now apparent that efforts to clean the beaches, wetlands, marshes and estuaries will affect workers’ health, much like the search in the toxic rubble of the Twin Towers.

Today, we learn that nearby rigs evacuated nonessential personnel because of the toxic fumes. Yet, unlike Katrina and the 9/11 attack, which were judged in terms of human death and injury, this event will be measured in terms of irreversible damage and lost livelihoods dependent on one of our nation’s most productive ecosystems.

About a week after public acknowledgment of the leak, almost unbelievably, Matthew Simmons, a 40-year veteran of the oil industry, reported that the leak could spew indefinitely. The increasingly relevant peak oil theorist and author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy” suggests there may be no technical solution.

If so, the pressurized subterranean reservoir known as the Macondo field is poised to deposit an estimated 500 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, the “fail-safe” relief well method, which BP claims will stop the flow by mid-August, is a technical challenge that requires both skill and luck. Success is not guaranteed.

The inevitability of catastrophe has been building for decades. With developed and developing industrial economies’ thirst for oil unabated in the face of diminishing returns to exploration and inexorably depleting reserves, advanced technology is employed to stave off peak oil production.

In 2008, the constraint seemed increasingly binding as the price per barrel reached $147, only to be temporarily stayed by a global recession. Even in a slack economy, oil industry experts are aware that current oil production has slipped into a mode of just-in-time production.

But peak oil is more than shrinking geologic reservoirs. Peak oil is also reflected in the desperate act of trying to meet growing demand with blatantly unsafe methods. Imagine a nuclear power plant with one coolant system to contain an accident. Today, this is illegal and unethical practice.

Imagine a deep-water oil well with a “fail-safe” relief well available 16 weeks down the road at the earliest. All existing deep-water oil wells need to be immediately shut down while their owners install relief wells.

This precaution is a necessary cost of production even if it forces the price of gasoline to levels not yet experienced.

The ongoing tragedy is an obvious market failure. The ability of oil companies to externalize risk by pushing it onto society and nature means that the price of oil is too low. Gasoline prices do not efficiently balance the private benefits of consumption with the private and social costs of production.

Environmental economists have been saying this for decades, to marginal effect. The ongoing tragedy is also a failure of government to properly permit, inspect and enforce violations. Still, no level of inspection and enforcement can be adequate until deep-water oil drilling occurs with two or more relief wells in place prior to operation.

It is unacceptable to wait four to nine months for a relief well to be drilled as untold barrels of oil destroy our nation’s life- sustaining natural capital.

As understanding of the unfolding historic moment widens and deepens in the public mind, reinforced as the streams of human, ecological and economic damage mount, rigid attitudes will break down.

Citizens could actually start to grapple with the truth that our nation’s fossil-fuel-intensive way of life and the energy policy that underwrites it are in dire need of irreversible change.

We’ll see. Some habits die hard.

 

– Special to the Press Herald