"Energy of electromagnetic radiation is stored in oil, a fossil fuel, retrieved by an oil rig."
That line, from Dorling Kindersley's "Visual Encyclopedia," makes an oil rig seem like such a benign and reliable tool.
It is difficult to reconcile with images and informed reports of the devastation as a torrent of BP crude oil engulfs a huge swath of the Gulf of Mexico (that's a NASA photo) in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. (Because area on the surface of the sea is a tough thing for most people to get their heads around, media keep comparing its size to things like Delaware, Jamaica, etc.)
Carl Safina, who in my view consistently strikes a constructive balance between the practical and the paramount, points out in his "Spill Baby Spill" post that anodyne descriptions of oil rigs are also misleadingly reassuring.
First he quotes someone questioning the use of the word "spill" when we're talking about a disaster of this scale. ("Milk spills. A can of oil spills.")
But then Safina gets to the nub of the problem, after quoting U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar as calling it a "very, very rare event."
I say the spill’s a very, very inevitable event. Especially with 30,000 wells drilled. Thirty thousand. There are roughly 4,000 wells producing oil there.In 2007 the federal Minerals Management Service examined 39 rig blowouts in the Gulf of Mexico between 1992 and 2006 [http://bit.ly/a7FleE].So, a blowout every four months.
It reminds me of an eye-opening statistic provided by Peter Apps of Reuters at the height of the air-travel crisis sparked by that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano!
Governments face a difficult decision. Between 20,000 and 22,000 flights a day fly in European airspace, so even if 99.9 percent suffered no serious ill effects, that would still see 20 planes a day suffering damage or engine failure.
It's mind-blowing, though, to see how dismissive societies can be of the oil-rig failures, presumably because they represent such an indirect threat to us humans. After all, it's not like passenger jets are falling out of the sky or anything.