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BP: Beyond the Horizon on Radio 4 today ended with a brief discussion of the wider lessons of this disaster with Caroline Lucas & Ed Miliband, followed by a separate questioning of Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change, Chris Huhne.

The programme was right to move beyond the issues around the Gulf of Mexico spill, though of course it is a major ecological disaster. But it was simply a disaster waiting to happen as Green Party member Sandy Irvine has pointed out in an article Disasters Waiting to Happen.

Sandy stresses that there is a massive pollution problem caused by

“normal” spillage and dumping… In eastern Ecuador it is so severe that it is being called the “Amazonian Chernobyl”. In the search for oil, yet more complicated extractive technologies and management systems are required. But they bring increasing risk of malfunction and breakdown at some weak point. The new fields will be in more distant or hostile environments where remedial action is even harder.

But blaming BP, Barack Obama or whoever is ultimately beyond the point. The root driving force is society’s collective addiction to the lifestyles that oil and other fossil fuels underwrite. That dependence is intimately connected to the growing catastrophe of Albertan tar-sands exploitation as well as the deep-ocean drilling and the mountaintop removal, with all the environmental devastation that follow in their wake.

The risks are routine and inherent. The better safety policy is one that insists that new developments are not “fail-safe” – an impossibility – but fail-tolerant. We need technologies where the consequences of failure are tolerable. Oil from sources like Deepwater Horizon is indeed a “drop in the ocean” when it comes to total global demand and will do little to reduce the approach of global Peak Oil. Indeed BP’s big deepwater Gulf of Mexico project Thunderhorse, has, like many deepwater projects, experienced an unexpected production crash, raising the question of just how much oil such sources will ever produce.

Furthermore, even the highest prices cannot stimulate into being some magical substitute for an almost unique resource like oil. Nor can they make drawing board technologies like carbon capture and storage magically become an effective, safe and cheap reality. Overall there is no solution within the parameters of a growth-based economy, be it one by corporations like BP or the government.

The sustainable path would be to plan for post-Peak Oil, not desperately squeeze out a bit more oil, which all else apart, only makes the inevitable transition harder. But perhaps there is a greater opportunity for Greens to drive home this point. Unlike climate change, the effects of Deepwater Horizon are much more visible and indeed visceral. Now is the time to work for a moratorium of all such developments as well as major new pipelines. They only take society further down a road that can but lead to a dead-end. Now is the time to maximise our campaigns for the transition to energy sources that don’t destroy the rest of nature and which do not run out. Now is the time for an economic effort in these fields equivalent to wartime mobilisation. But the time is running out to do so.

Meanwhile the Con-dem government is blithely continuing down the dead-end road, with increasing subsidies to the oil industry and supporting deep sea drilling west of the Shetland Islands.


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