Green fire

I’m making a sweep of the exhibition floor at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, trying not to trip over the chemical-protection suits and feeling like a freak-out-of-bongland. I’ve got my hair piled in a topknot and “oil-hatin’ puke” written all over my face.

Upstairs in the banquet rooms, presenters at the 18th Annual Clean Gulf conference who earned their stripes mopping up after some of the biggest spills in history — Gulf War One’s Iraqi Army release of a record-shattering 900 million barrels of crude into the Arabian Gulf; Exxon Valdez’s ecologically devastating 11 million gallons mucking 1,100 miles of Alaska coast — are schooling emergency responders in industrial squeegee methodology.

Here in the grand hall, however, it’s not so easy for a visitor to glean quick statistics.

“Uh, you’ll have to submit a written request,” an unsmiling Texas General Land Office rep insists when I inquire about oil’s toll on Texas waters.

A sweet-seeming, butch-haired animal rescuer recoils when I ask her to quantify the number of crude-saturated birds her group scrubs each year.

“We give those numbers to our industry partners,” she says, before dousing her inner light, suggesting the conversation is over.

With the wild chanting for hopped-up domestic drilling now flooding the airwaves matched by Congress’s decision to allow the decades-old moratorium on offshore drilling to expire, they seem like important questions.

In Texas, the moratorium’s demise doesn’t mean much. We weren’t part of it to begin with. Neither were Louisiana nor Alabama. Because of that exemption, Texas has continued to enjoy a steady trickle of petro-pollution in our state waters.

Since President Clinton extended Bush Senior’s moratorium in 1998, 868,056 gallons of oil have been spilled in the waters south of Lone Star beaches, according to the GLO.

Into this tar-pocked territory Texans will soon be factoring the ecological damages and health risks posed by one of “clean” energy’s rising stars. Biodiesel is on the make.

Derived from a variety of sources, including soybeans and chicken fat, biofuels are typically blended with diesel in varying amounts, usually around 10 to 20 percent. Corn-based ethanol isn’t new, having enjoyed heavy use thanks to three decades of generous subsidies, but federal mandates have it locked into heavy rotation. Beyond the drawbacks of turning food sources into fuel, a move that led to global food-price spikes and riots this last year, biofuels also have no secure pipeline network.

“Unfortunately there is no means of transportation, so it must be moved by trucks, rails, and on barges, which increases the likelihood of spills and fires,” Nicole Johnson of the California Public Utility Commission told a full room of Clean Gulf conference attendees. Unlike carbon-spewing crude, the methanols and ethanols in biodiesel disperse quickly in water while staying flammable. “The bio-oil doesn’t weather as well as the ads suggest,” she said. Ethanol-blended fuels don’t respond to the traditional foams used to suppress oil and gas fires. And the fumes can be more flammable than gasoline vapor.

American Biofuels was preparing to bring their Bakersfield, California, plant online in 2006 when a minor methanol leak outside the complex sparked and flames gutted the new venture.

The city of Columbus, Ohio, transitioned their fleet of garbage trucks to biodiesel, but after a tank leak the city was forced to spend 10 months and $1.6 million mucking up. The soy-based fuels repeatedly clogged the crews’ pumps, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

In an emailed response to questions about her presentation, Johnson said ethanol is “a very problematic material.” With all variety of biofuels, “we need more information, more data, and more studies. We need to understand the material and how to respond to it before an incident occurs, not wait until after.” Given the federal mandate requiring states to increase their ethanol consumption and the rapid growth of large biofuel plants, the public faces a “huge risk,” she said.

On behalf of his chicken-raising buddies, in a move backed by many environmentalists concerned about converting food crops into fuel, Texas Governor Rick Perry challenged the U.S. EPA’s mandate on ethanol use. And failed. That puts the state on track to use 10.5 billion gallons of ethanol next year.

Officials at the GLO, which houses the state’s Oil Spills Prevention and Response program, weren’t too concerned about biofuel spills, suggesting to the Current that traditional methods of containment and cleanup would likely work just fine. But they’ve only had four minor spills offshore to date, one involving less than 50 gallons that never left the deck of the ship. With the bio-boom well underway, they’ll have more chances. National biofuel production is expected to increase by more than 50 million gallons next year, hitting an anticipated 600 million gallons. Texas, with 20 biofuels plants, has the capacity to churn out more than 100 million gallons per year.

But thanks to the cumulative reality of land-based runoff, the myriad small drips and spills from industry, sewage plants, and dumped automotive fluids, whatever blend of liquid fuel gains dominance in the coming years will continue to pose substantial risks to Texas land and waters. Each year, 700 million gallons of oil pollution enter the ocean (about the same amount consumed in the U.S. daily). Urban runoff is to blame for half.

While biofuels may represent an unknown quantity in the regulatory and enforcement world, Texas still bleeds from established Texas teas — oil and gas — a point not lost on Clean Gulf conference attendees. As Ramon Fernandez, Jr., the Texas Railroad Commission’s deputy assistant director of field operations, clicked through his Powerpoint presentation, including numerous photos of abandoned offshore oil wells, the toll of oil was obvious. In recent years, his agency has hired more inspectors and doubled the amount of money from $10 million to $20 million dedicated to closing “orphaned wells” — wells whose operators fled the scene before declaring bankruptcy or going out of business. The amount drilling companies are required to put down for financial assurance is “still insufficient,” Fernandez said. “These small independents are buying up these wells and they can’t afford to plug them.”

One such independent operator tried to reopen his well in Chambers County but ended up jamming the wellhead with radioactive americium in a blunder that ultimately cost the state $475,000, Fernandez said. That wellhead is now encased in cement, with a warning placard urging the curious to stay away.

The benefits from biofuels — particularly the promise of algae-based power that university bobbleheads are even now sussing out — are too great to ignore. But the new set of risks deserve scrutiny, too.

After a false start registering for Clean Gulf last week, I floated down the convention-center escalator and crossed seas of polyurethane-cushioned carpeting. Behind me a smiling conference facilitator trots, my forgotten coffee mug in her hand.

“Gotta have your fuel!” she says brightly. Yes, but which one?

Could a release of 50-50 soy-diesel blend really ever compare to the destruction of the Megaborg tanker that in 1990 released 4.2 million gallons of Angolan crude into our Gulf? If it means bidding a final adieu to climate-disrupting, air-fouling petrofuels, I may just be down for a little biofuel bumbling. •

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