A leaking, Alaska oil well that sprayed some crude and then spewed gas for days on the North Slope of the Brooks Range has been shut down, and the world can rest easy.
Aside from generating some more bad press for London-based British Petroleum, this accident will likely slide into history as just one of the thousands of minor spills and leaks in the U.S. this year.
Given that the amount of oil was small – the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation describes it as “an initial spray of crude oil that impacted the well pad” – it will disappear into time once the catastrophe of this happening in the pristine wilds of that great American national park called Alaska passes.
Welcome to America’s odd relationship with oil, and the even stranger world of 21st Century news where certain narratives are expected to be followed, agendas color so much, and the easy often trumps the important.
First and foremost, an oil spill is easy. It is the car crash of environmental news. Of nightly television news, it was once said “if it bleeds, it leads.” Of internet news today, it might be said that “if its spill, it kills.”
Or at least that is the case if the spill happens to be in pristine Alaska. Elsewhere? Who cares. But in Alaska, hostile yet vulnerable Alaska, the place in which every true environmentalist knows oil should never have been tapped to begin with….
The oil spill at BPXA Drill Site 2, Well 3, shouldn’t have happened. No oil spill should. Not this one. Not any one of the 20 or so that can be expected somewhere else in the American oil patch today. Not the one involving some kid changing oil in his car in the driveway of a home in middle America, or the fisherman doing the same in an Alaska port and spilling some overboard.
Few if any of the latter spills, however, make the news, or if they do it is only in passing. No journalists consider those stories worthy of the spotlight.
Even a gas blowout with a spray of oil that, as the Alaska Environmental Conservation reports,”did not leave the pad” would fail to make much news in the California, Louisiana, North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma or other oil patches.
When Propublica took a look at North Dakota’s Bakken oil field in 2012, it found “more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011….Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.
“State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades.”
Almost none of these spills had been reported by the media. The extent of leaks and spills, in fact, went unknown to the public until Propublica started poking around.
Alaska’s Arctic, thankfully, does not have this problem. That is the upside of keeping even small spills in the spotlight in Alaska. The downside is that suggestion of another disaster in that hostile polar region where humans really don’t belong reinforces the misperception that operating in Alaska is somehow more difficult and more dangerous than operating elsewhere in the world.
The reality is Alaska has a pretty good record for producing oil while minimizing oil spillage. It is a record good enough that the state didn’t even warrant a dot on the National Resources Defense Council’s “Spill Tracker” in 2015.
Nonetheless, the BPXA blowout made news around the world. Spills in Alaska are simply treated differently than those of the rest of the world.
“BP Struggles to Control Damaged Well in Alaskan Arctic,” the New York Times headlined, predictably pointing out the frigid temperatures and noting that the well was leaking “methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.”
Danger versus danger
Methane is what most people know simply as “natural gas.”
“Methane is invisible to the naked eye and does not make for good television. So when about 100,000 tonnes billowed out of a natural-gas system in Aliso Canyon, Los Angeles, over 112 days last winter, it drew relatively little media attention—even though it forced the evacuation of thousands of homes and the plume was big enough to be detectable from space,” The Economist reported last July.
As The Economist noted, the Aliso Canyon leak didn’t get the sort of attention BP’s massive Deepwater oil gusher attracted in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 because Aliso didn’t look bad. Crude oil is an ugly glop that smears white sands beaches and kills wildlife. Methane is a clear gas that disappears into the atmosphere.
PBXA might not have attracted all much more attention than Alisso sans the report of that first spray of oil. A Hilcorp pipeline beneath Cook Inlet leaking significant amounts of natural gas earlier this year attracted little attention outside the local media and the environmental niche media of the internet.
InsideClimateNews reported that the “unplugged natural gas leak threatens Alaska’s endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales,” although there was no evidence of that. The well was mainly just bubbling the often roiled water of the Inlet with a reported leak of 210,000 to 310,000 cubic feet of gas per day, or about six tonnes.
A leak of that volume could run 45 years and not reach the volume of the little-noticed Aliso leak, which is not to say the combined impacts of the gas leak in Cook Inlet, BPXA and dozens of other small leaks are benign.
It’s simply that they are all just part of the much bigger and more complicated picture of how we power the U.S. economy today. As global natural gas use increases, there is growing concern about all the methane leaking into the atmosphere.
Methane emissions from hydrocarbons have now surpassed those from agriculture (cows belch and fart a lot of methane and their manure produces more) as the leading source of atmospheric contamination in this country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A team of scientists from Harvard University mapped methane emissions in the continental U.S. in 2012. The maps are interesting to look at. They show big hotspots around areas where agricultural or gas production is high with some smaller hotspots around or near cities or industrial areas where that methane – a powerful greenhouse gas, as The Times notes – leaks into the air.
The problem of all this leaking gas has caught the attention of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
As they note, natural gas burns way cleaner than coal or oil and produces far less carbon dioxide, but it “is 34 times stronger than CO2 at trapping heat over a 100-year period and 86 times stronger over 20 years….Whether natural gas has lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil depends on the assumed leakage rate, the global warming potential of methane over different time frames, the energy conversion efficiency, and other factors.”
So depending on how that clean gas is handled it could be a cleaner fuel than messy oil. Or not.
The world in which we live is a complicated place too easily simplified into what looks bad and what looks good. But looks good versus looks bad colors media behavior.
The media has (Full Disclosure: This reporter, too) what Ari Fleisher, the one-time press secretary to former President George W. Bush, has taken to calling “an inherent bias toward conflict.”
Bad versus good.
An oil spill in pristine wilds of Prudhoe – any kind of oil spill – is bad no matter how unpristine Prudhoe might be because it is man accidentally or intentionally waging war on nature.
Bad oil v good oil
Man, of course, has spent a long time waging war on nature.
Some 122 acres of land near San Diego – an acreage about six times that of the PBXA oil pad – is now lost forever beneath a manmade oil spill, though no one calls it that. It is, instead, called the “parking lot” at Qualcomm stadium.
It is reputed to be one of the largest parking lots in the country. But there are huge parking lots all over America, not to mention an estimated 2.5 million miles of asphalt pavement in the country.
Asphalt is an oil spill not meant to be cleaned up. It is oil intentionally slathered across the American landscape.
“Almost all asphalt used today is derived from the bottom of the barrel – that is, the last cut in the petroleum refinery after naphtha, gasoline, kerosene, and other fractions have been removed from crude oil,” according to Chemical and Engineering News.
And the ground doesn’t get just a spray of asphalt; the ground is smothered beneath it. Anchorage, like all American cities, has its share, and when the spinning, studded tires of Alaska winter drivers tear it up, they send billions of microscopic bits of it into the air people breathe.
“In northern Sweden, the exposure to coarse particles is unusually high during April and May when streets and highways are cleared from sand and particles produced by wintertime driving with studded tires and the sanding of roads from October, resulting in lots of wear particles which are present until the roads are cleaned in late spring,” scientists in the Scandinavian country reported.
They believed the resultant air pollution to be a threat to the health of children and to the costs of pollution-linked health care. The Norwegians, similarly worried, now tax Oslo drivers who want to use asphalt-eating studded tires. The tax has cut studded tire use from 50 percent in 1999 to about 15 percent today.
Luckily for stud-loving Alaskans, a 2004 study by University of Alaska researchers concluded “that health costs from dust due to studded tire wear are not significant in Alaska,” primarily because of the state’s generally low traffic volumes.
Drivers in the state’s largest city might think they have to deal with traffic congestion, but it’s nothing like that in Oslo, an urban area with a population of close to 1 million people. On TomTom’s global scale for traffic congestion it ranks 81, just ahead of Portland. Anchorage doesn’t even warrant a ranking.
Both those cities are crowded with motor vehicles tearing up the pavement to pollute the air while pumping out emissions to pollute the air while surrounded by buildings that leak carbon dioxide to pollute the air.
This could be the description of almost every urban area around the globe if the oil-is-bad narrative was taken to its logical conclusion.
And yet, espite all this environmental destruction, we love our urban jungles. We love our urban jungles so much that for more than 100 years Americans have been voting with their feet to move into urban areas or adjacent suburban areas that make people dependent on the hydrocarbons pumped out of the ground in places like Prudhoe Bay to provide the fuel for the vehicles that move them to and from work.
In the big picture, all of this sort of makes a little oil spilled on a frozen gravel pad in Alaska a small thing. That oil is easily cleaned up. It can’t get into the ground because the ground is frozen. The same amount spilled in a Louisiana swamp would be orders of magnitude worse.
If an oil company is going to suffer an oil spill about the best place it can happen is in Alaska in the winter, but you’re not going to read anyone writing that anywhere because it violates the narrative.
The narrative dictates that the BP spill is a big deal because it is the kind of spill humans don’t want to happen, especially in Alaska, as opposed to the kind of spill humans do want to happen.
We are one strange species.