Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill

Two weeks ago, my wife and I spent a weekend in Port Aransas, Texas for our the wedding of Katy and Zach, who love the beach as well as each other. For our first two days there, it was hazy and muggy and difficult to see very far. Still, in the evenings we could see lights out at sea.

But on the third morning, rain showers had cleared the air. When we looked out to the ocean, we were suddenly able to see dozens of oil rigs and platforms scattered along the horizon, as though they had just appeared overnight.

Port Aransas drilling platforms, by Flickr user austrini.

It might be because I grew up in Maine, but looking out at the ocean has never really inspired a sense of awe in me, the way it seems to for others. But seeing the oil rigs at Port Aransas made me feel differently. Looking at these huge machines as tiny blips on the horizon really impressed me with how huge the ocean really is. Each of these rigs had crews that would be flown in by helicopter to live there for month-long shifts. They're tiny villages isolated by miles and miles of ocean, like outposts on a watery and hostile prairie.

But the biggest feeling of awe didn't come from contemplating the vast ocean. It came from contemplating the tremendous wealth and social complexity necessary to plant thousands of these rigs and their crews miles out to sea.

A map of offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, from Wikipedia.

From Port Aransas we drove through a landscape of ride fields and petrochemical refineries to Houston, home to the headquarters of most major oil companies doing business in the United States, including BP. While we were there, BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, operating in deep waters beyond the edge of the continental shelf, exploded and sank to precipitate what could become the worst oil spill in history.

But in those first few days, there wasn't much to indicate that it would be such a disaster. With thousands of oil rigs operating in the Gulf, accidents are inevitable. At the airport the next morning, we read through a discarded copy of the April 21st Houston Chronicle. I remember noting that the newspaper was lighter and smaller than it had been five years before, when I'd lived in Houston. But I don't remember any stories about the Deepwater Horizon. We wouldn't know the scale of the disaster until later. We probably still don't know.

How we respond reveals a lot about the state of environmentalism, energy policy, and our economy. I have a lot more to say on this - in the meantime, here's an old post about my visit to the Texas Star offshore oil rig museum in Galveston:

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