Some perspective on the oil spill in the gulf

Not only do you get normal oil seepage in the oceans each year, but oil drilling actually reduces it by reducing the pressure in under sea deposits.

Environmental groups warn that offshore drilling opens the door to oil spills and litter that could mar pristine beaches in Florida and California. But oil companies claim they have improved their drilling technology to the point that the risk of offshore oil spills is nearly nil. A joint study by NASA and the Smithsonian Institution found that more oil seeps into the ocean naturally than from drilling accidents. According to the study, natural underwater oil deposits leak some 62 million gallons of oil a year into the ocean compared with 15 million gallons from offshore drilling. Offshore drilling is actually the smallest source of oil pollution in the oceans, while runoff -- from activities like car owners changing their own oil -- is the largest at 363 million gallons per year.

So how much is being spilled from the oil well right now.

Officials estimate 5,000 barrels of crude — or 200,000 gallons — are being spewed each day by the damaged offshore BP well.

(Minor aside: Note that there are 42 gallons in an oil barrel so that 200,000 gallons actually equals about 4,762 barrels.) Suppose that 5,000 barrels goes on for 90 days unabated. That would be 18 million gallons. That is about 29 percent of the amount that naturally leaks into the ocean and it is actually 20 percent more than normally leaks into the ocean each year from all offshore oil drilling. If you add natural and manmade sources together, this would account for about 23 percent of that total.

I am still looking for data on how many birds are killed from this spill, but they also die from other green energy.

A July 2008 study of the wind farm at Altamont Pass, Calif., estimated that its turbines kill an average of 80 golden eagles per year. The study, funded by the Alameda County Community Development Agency, also estimated that about 10,000 birds—nearly all protected by the migratory bird act—are being whacked every year at Altamont.

Altamont's turbines, located about 30 miles east of Oakland, Calif., kill more than 100 times as many birds as Exxon's tanks, and they do so every year. But the Altamont Pass wind farm does not face the same threat of prosecution, even though the bird kills at Altamont have been repeatedly documented by biologists since the mid-1990s.

The number of birds killed by wind turbines is highly variable. And biologists believe Altamont, which uses older turbine technology, may be the worst example. But that said, the carnage there likely represents only a fraction of the number of birds killed by windmills. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy estimates that U.S. wind turbines kill between 75,000 and 275,000 birds per year. Yet the Justice Department is not bringing cases against wind companies. . . .

Should clean up simply go natural?

A new Queen's University study shows that detergents used to clean up spills of diesel oil actually increase its toxicity to fish, making it more harmful.

"The detergents may be the best way to treat spills in the long term because the dispersed oil is diluted and degraded," says Biology professor Peter Hodson. "But in the short term, they increase the bioavailability and toxicity of the fuel to rainbow trout by 100-fold."
The detergents are oil dispersants that decrease the surface tension between oil and water, allowing floating oil to mix with water as tiny droplets. Dr. Hodson and his team found that dispersion reduces the potential impacts of oil on surface-dwelling animals, While this should enhance biodegradation, it also creates a larger reservoir of oil in the water column.
This increases the transfer of hydrocarbons from oil to water, Dr. Hodson explains. The hydrocarbons pass easily from water into tissues and are deadly to fish in the early stages of life. "This could seriously impair the health of fish populations, resulting in long-term reductions in economic returns to fisheries," he says.
The study is published in the journal, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. . . .

How much of a subsidy is needed for these green fuels?

For electricity generation, the EIA concludes that solar energy is subsidized to the tune of $24.34 per megawatt hour, wind $23.37 and "clean coal" $29.81. By contrast, normal coal receives 44 cents, natural gas a mere quarter, hydroelectric about 67 cents and nuclear power $1.59. . . .

But wind and solar have been on the subsidy take for years, and they still account for less than 1% of total net electricity generation. Would it make any difference if the federal subsidy for wind were $50 per megawatt hour, or even $100? Almost certainly not without a technological breakthrough.

By contrast, nuclear power provides 20% of U.S. base electricity production, yet it is subsidized about 15 times less than wind. We prefer an energy policy that lets markets determine which energy source dominates. But if you believe in subsidies, then nuclear power gets a lot more power for the buck than other "alternatives."

The same study also looked at federal subsidies for non-electrical energy production, such as for fuel. It found that ethanol and biofuels receive $5.72 per British thermal unit of energy produced. That compares to $2.82 for solar and $1.35 for refined coal, but only three cents per BTU for natural gas and other petroleum liquids. . . .



Blogger Popgun said...

Hi, John;
Your numbers relating natural oil seepage to the volume of the oil spill are interesting and no doubt correct. However, the comparison is like pointing out that the number of people who were murdered on 9/11 was about the same as the number who die every day of other causes in the U.S.

It's not really the amount so much as that it is that amount all at once.


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