The wake of BP

A brisk survey of mainstream media reports in the wake of BP’s recent apparent comeuppance seems to reveal a large helping of schadenfreude. It is a given, apparently, that BP and the others form part of a destructive complex that we’d be better off without. Before we jump on board, though, perhaps we should take a few calm breaths.

Some suggest that increasingly desperate offshore drilling operations are an indication that easily available oil is hard to find: the Deepwater Horizon had an alleged yield of 4 barrels of oil for every 1 barrel’s worth of energy needed for the operation – the Energy Return on Investment, or ERoI – compared to a healthier ERoI of 100:1 for the more straightforward fields of yore. The consequence of this disaster may be that welcome caution will be employed in future over high-risk operations, but this could push the extractive industries to focus ever more on safer onshore operations, such as the environmentally devastating Canadian tar sands. Or perhaps, some analysts have commented, this will push the matter of peak oil higher up the agenda and force us to investigate alternatives with a little more urgency.

It is sobering to consider that the projected capacity of the oil field that Deepwater Horizon was drilling was 50 to 100 million barrels, and that global consumption stands at 85 million barrels per day. All of this mess and loss of life, then, was brought upon us for the sake of remarkably little – perhaps as little as one day’s worth of oil. Compare this with a plan due to be presented on 16 June by Seamus Garvey, Professor of Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering at the University of Nottingham, in which he will describe the possibility of compressed air storage of energy produced from offshore wind. It would be sufficient, he suggests, to provide the UK with all of its energy by 2030. A gentle steer to the hitherto demonised oil industry may never be more effective than now, as crisis upon crisis dramatically threatens business as usual.

A descent from fossil-fuel dependent civilisation is clearly desirable, with climate change threatening uncomfortable changes and the daily reality of ongoing local environmental damage (let us not forget that Nigeria has experienced worse, yet barely reported, oil spills than the Gulf of Mexico over an extended period, or that since Deepwater Horizon’s tragic demise there has been a further spill, this time in Alaska, in which BP is implicated). However, a good plan must consider all available resources, and the offshore and infrastructural expertise in the oil industry could be borne in mind.

More constructive than a gleeful trumpeting of BP’s 50% share value loss over the last two months would be a plan which is capable of using their considerable expertise and resources towards more benign and progressive goals. After all, their carefully projected clean and sunny image of numerous PR campaigns is already in place.

At the very least, a grip on the prerequisites for the current global lifestyle would be helpful. We live oil-hungry lives, but it is not at all clear that a reduction in our usage would be as uncomfortable as we are led to believe, nor so difficult to replace. An ‘us and them’ attitude will help no-one. Although low-tech solutions may feature in our future, like it or not, we have deposited much of our knowledge and skill in BP and its industry colleagues, and it may be reasonable and timely to request that it be made to work for us. After all, the collapse of BP would be unlikely to result in any significant slowing of worldwide oil extraction, while even their own operations would almost certainly continue under a different name. Rose-tinted though our spectacles may be, if there is even the merest chance that their skills could be put to getter use, we can ill afford the demise of a momentarily ailing energy corporation and the wasted opportunity that this could present.

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