Clean Gulf & messes that could have been

Nice habitat. Leak much? An abandoned oil well off the Texas coast.

Greg Harman

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Gathered at last week's Clean Gulf conference in San Antonio were the heroes of our oil dependence. Ben Benson, worked the largest oil catastrophe (Kuwait) and the most ecologically egregious to date (Exxon's Valdez).

While the true cost of either in lives or dollars is beyond me, the victims of the later spill are still waiting for the Petro Giant's payment, while victims of the former will have to wait for the new Iraq to deal with their reparation claims. "Wealthless" nature will just have to keep swallowing.

Benson said that thanks to 24-hour news cycles and growing public eco-awareness, spill response has become increasingly “politically charged and politically motivated in all sorts of ways.”

While he didn't spell out what ways he speaks of, he did make clear that media is to “be managed,” from “day one.” I was hoping for a media massage for sitting in on the message, I got gravel instead. Oh, well.

Benson was also on deck after Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast's petrochemical hell three years ago, ripping through so much off- and on-shore infrastructure that crews found themselves battling 10 major, simultaneous spills off the Louisiana coast. The toxic mess left behind colored debate over the safety of evacuees returning home for months.

Those banking on recovery of the Gulf's deepwater oil and gas deposits know that related infrastructure is a larger part of the Drill Here debate â?? even if the representatives from Florida's Department of Environmental Protection do just shrug at the notion of drilling returning to their shores when I ask them about it on the exhibition floor of the Gonzalez Convention Center.

Though my story coming out tomorrow hones in on biofuels for the new set of risks their deployment represents, traditional oil and gas was a definite legacy. The transition can come none too soon. Something to be remembered in the coming debates over punching more holes in the earth for her rich fluid.

Off most people's radar has been lowly geothermal, which good old Google has been exploring (along with a range of other renewables). Bone up on the promise of subterranean hot water with this recent LA Times dispatch from Nevada. Texas has good pockets for the developing tech, too.

What stunned me most about attending the conference for oilfield responders were the many stories of the spills that could have been.

Case in point: A chemical spill in the Houston Ship Channel a year ago brought on by heavy rains. Agrifos Fertilizer Company pumped out about 10 million gallons of phosphoric acid into the channel in the hopes of avoiding the total failure of containment walls that would have released another 35 million gallons in one great flush.

“What we were dealing with doesn't float and it's very harmful to the environment,” Virginia Kammer of the Coast Guard's Gulf Strike Team. “They were releasing through a pipeline for several days, we think.”

Since the company was not a traditional petroleum company, they were not required to have “incident management” response plans in place. “We really had no viable options in the short term,” Kammer said.

Yum. And plenty more where that came from.

Seeking help to pay for the many abandoned wells in Texas, the Railroad Commission has buddied up with the state's General Land Office, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Department of Interior's Mineral Management Service. Plugging old wells in impaired water bodies has already cost nearly $10 million.

We can't expect the same from either the bio- or geo- awakening. Maybe as we shift over to a renewable matrix we'll be able to fully staff our respective state regulatory agencies, forced year after year to run doomed enforcement operations on a shoestring.

Then again, a McCain win today would carry us back to 1950s-era uranium mania. We'll need all the eco cops on the beat we can manage.

For a little light-hearted fable of "evil dragon," otherwise known as nuclear power, you may enjoy watching this curbside demonstration/performance from a cadre of eco-radicals I enjoy.

Carbon-free, nuclear-free, is an option can choose today.

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