On Jan. 21, 1991, Saddam took time off from his busy schedule of filling mass graves and invading his neighbors to have his army open the valves at Kuwait’s Sea Island oil terminal with the deliberate intent of causing a spill.
He succeeded. The ensuing fiveinch-thick, 42-mile-wide oil slick eventually stretched for 101 miles down the Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian coasts. It contained about 1.5 million metric tons of oil. (A metric ton of Kuwaiti crude oil equals 7.33 barrels or 308 gallons, so Saddam’s slick contained about 11 million barrels or 462 million gallons of crude.)Blowouts, like shit, happen — and failing to deal with them is not an option.
When it comes to oil pollution, Saddam is in a class by himself. Not only is he responsible for the world’s largest oil spill, he gets credit for the fifthlargest spill, too.
That one occurred on Feb. 4, 1983, when his air force bombed Iran’s Nowruz oil field platform, resulting in a 260,000-metric-ton (1.9-million-barrel/80-million-gallon) spill.
Then there’s the matter of torching 750 Kuwaiti oil wells as his army was hastily leaving the country in March 1991. The fires burned for eight months and consumed about 5 million barrels of oil a day.
Happily, Saddam was eventually hanged, albeit for crimes against humanity rather than crimes against nature. (Think of it as reducing his carbon footprint with extreme prejudice.)
The lesson to be learned from this is plain enough, although a bit nonintuitive: Hanging dictators is not only good for human rights, it’s also good for the environment.
There are lessons to be learned from most of the world’s major oil spills, also non-intuitive and inconvenient for the most part. Take the spill following the Deepwater Horizon rig blowout two weeks ago.
Lesson 1 is drill, baby, drill. That well is flowing at 5,000 barrels a day, and maybe 25,000 barrels a day by some estimates. If the last is correct, the well’s output is approaching Saudi standards.
Spill or no spill, the country is still economically and strategically addicted to oil, and that isn’t going to change for at least a generation, even if we started converting to electric cars and green electricity tomorrow. We are currently fighting two wars with enemies who are at least in part funded by dollars spent by American consumers on gasoline made from imported crude. The U.S. currently imports about 5 billion barrels of oil a year. Think of it as a half-trilliondollar economic stimulus plan in reverse. Under the circumstances, not to develop big domestic oil finds verges on treason.
Lesson 2 is drilling for oil in the U.S. is less likely to result in a major spill than importing it in tankers. Since 1967, there have been 14 oil spills in the world that have resulted in the release of 100,000 metric tons or more of oil. Setting aside the two caused by Saddam, 10 of the remaining 12 involved tankers.
(By comparison with these disasters, the Exxon Valdez disaster — which America’s hyperventilating news media seems to think is the gold standard of oil spills — is pretty small potatoes. The Exxon Valdez was carrying 175,600 metric tons of oil when it ran aground in Prince William Sound, but only about 37,000 tons spilled.)
Lesson 3 is that when it comes to oil spills, error recovery is more critical than accident prevention. Oil is produced safely most of the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that drilling for oil 50 miles from land in 5,000 feet of water is risky business, or that blowouts, like shit, happen — and failing to deal with them is not an option.
British Petroleum’s response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster has had the feel of NASA’s response to the Apollo 13 disaster — it’s been marked by aggressive, creative improvisation — as has the response of federal and state authorities, which is all to the good. But given the scale of the problem and the consequences it can have, the oil industry and the government need to have the material and human resources in place to respond in a way that minimizes the need for improvisation.
Lesson 4 is nature is less fragile than environmentalists. The world’s major oil spills seem to play out in remarkably similar patterns: There’s usually a big die-off of marine life, especially birds and shellfish. Fishing and tourist communities get hammered. Anguished environmentalists declare beaches and the “fragile” marine ecosystem poisoned forever.
But that isn’t what happens. Study after study of major oil spills, including Saddam’s spills, marvel over the fact that within a year or two, nature is coming back, and that 20 or 30 years after the fact most (although usually not all) species have recovered or are on the way to recovery.
After a few decades it is hard to know that anything happened.
Take the Exxon Valdez disaster. A recent study found that some 21,000 gallons of crude still remain under the sands of 1,300 miles of Prince William Sound’s shoreline — 21,000 gallons out of 11.4 million gallons spilled. Twentyone thousand gallons of oil would just about fill two tanker trucks, and it’s spread out over a distance roughly equivalent to the distance between Denver and Detroit. Between the efforts of Exxon and nature, the Exxon Valdez cleanup appears to have been a screaming success.
The impact of an oil spill and the time it takes nature to recover doesn’t seem to be much different from the impact of a large forest fire.
Environmentalists viewing the Deepwater Horizon blow out have been gleefully answering “drill baby drill” with “spill baby spill.” Fair enough. But when it comes it spilling, there are two options: oil and blood. If you’re not willing to spill blood for oil, you better be prepared to drill for it.