Saturday, June 19, 2010

Love the Earth…

…or else!

At Just Thomism, Chastek made a comment about the recent BP oil snafu, which led me to ponder natural teleology. In response to a link to an article by Glenn Garvin, he said,

I’ve seen this too and been struck at how little is said in public about mother nature’s ability to recover. This is not to say that we should not be doing everything possible to fix the leak – just that we have to have confidence in the Earth’s ability to heal itself… another reason I don’t give much credence to the “danger” of man-made global warming. I get the impression that when Earth sort of feels like: “you wanna fight, punk? Bring. It. On.”

Before getting to my thoughts on teleology, I want to provide some commentary on the Macondo oil spill and ecological disasters in general.
In the article to which Chastek was replying, Garvin reports:

Thirty-one years since the worst oil spill in North American history blanketed 150 miles of Texas beach, tourists noisily splash in the surf and turtles drag themselves into the dunes to lay eggs.

"You look around and it's like the spill never happened,'' shrugs Tunnell, a marine biologist. "There's a lot of perplexity in it for many of us.

For Tunnell and others involved in the fight to contain the June 3, 1979, spill from Mexico's Ixtoc 1 offshore well in the Gulf of Campeche, the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico conjures an eerie sense of deja vu.

Like the BP spill, the Ixtoc disaster began with a burst of gas followed by an explosion and fire, followed by a relentless gush of oil that resisted all attempts to block it. Plugs of mud and debris, chemical dispersants, booms skimming the surface of the water: Mexico's Pemex oil company tried them all, but still the spill inexorably crept ashore, first in southeast Mexico, later in Texas.

But if the BP spill seems to be repeating one truth already demonstrated in the Ixtoc spill ... that human technology is no match for a high-pressure undersea oil blowout ... scientists are hoping that it may eventually confirm another: that the environment has a stunning capacity to heal itself from manmade insults.

"The environment is amazingly resilient, more so than most people understand," says Luis A. Soto, a deep-sea biologist with advanced degrees from Florida State University and the University of Miami who teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

"To be honest, considering the magnitude of the spill, we thought the Ixtoc spill was going to have catastrophic effects for decades ...But within a couple of years, almost everything was close to 100 percent normal again."

A couple weeks ago I read a similar essay by Elliott H. Gue, an investment consultant with a focus on energy development. Gue's article argues, first, that the earth has a profound ability to recover from ecological disasters, and, second, that an irrational Chicken-Little hysteria about the doom to be wrought by the BP leak will harm good investing and development down the line. Gue begins by placing the current Macondo oil snafu in rough parallel with the Ixtoc spill:

On June 3, 1979, workers aboard the Sedco 135-F semisubmersible drilling rig located in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche removed pipe from the Ixtoc-1 well to change the drill-bit.

During this routine process, oil and natural gas under tremendous geologic pressure overcame the weight of the drilling mud and the well blew out. The blowout preventer--a device designed to close the well in the event of a just such an emergency--activated but wasn’t powerful enough to shear through the thick pipe being pulled out of the well.

The result was devastating. Hydrocarbons gushing from the well ignited at the surface, and the 63 rig workers, some injured and burned, were rescued before the rig sank. Gas bubbling from the well continued to burn on the surface long after the rig went down.

In the late 1970s, the Bay of Campeche was still a relatively young hydrocarbon-producing region. The largest oilfield in this area is Cantarell, a giant field discovered in 1976 that produced more than 2 million barrels per day at peak production in 2003-04.

These young fields offered huge production rates because reservoir pressures were still high and oil flowed rather easily into wells. Although that was great news for the Mexican oil industry, it represented a significant problem for Ixtoc-1; the well gushed oil and natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico for some time.

Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), Mexico’s national oil company, made several attempts to plug the Ixtoc well, including pumping drilling mud, scrap rubber and other debris into the well under high pressure--the infamous top-kill. PEMEX also installed a containment cap over Ixtoc in an effort to collect some of the hydrocarbons flowing from the field.

But all of these efforts failed, and the well continued to spill oil into the Gulf of Mexico until PEMEX completed two relief wells that intersected the blown-out well. At that point the company was able to pump mud and cement into the well to plug it permanently.

The bad news: It took PEMEX nearly 10 months to drill the two relief wells and stop the spill. Over 290 days, the well gushed oil at an uncontrolled rate. The Ixtoc spill is estimated at 3.3 million barrels (138.6 million gallons) of oil.

The Ixtoc disaster had a significant environmental impact. The oil flowing from the well drifted into US waters, and tar balls washed onto Texas beaches. Mexican beaches also were heavily oiled; the bird population suffered, and commercial fisheries had to be closed for a time after the spill. Studies showed that biomass--the quantity of animal life in the region--fell more than 50 percent for some species in the immediate aftermath.

But most marine biologists who studied the after-effects of the spill were surprised at how quickly the Gulf recovered. In the warm waters of the Gulf, oil degrades at a far faster pace than it does in colder conditions; the basic rule of thumb is that for every 10 degrees Celsius oil degrades at about twice the speed. Accordingly, the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska took much longer to break down than the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil and gas leaks into the Gulf and have occurred for thousands of years. Oil naturally seeps from subsea reservoirs all over the world; producers even look for natural seeps as an indicator of good regions for further exploration. Although the exact amount of oil seepage is unknown, estimates suggest that 1 to 1.5 million barrels of oil (42 to 63 million gallons) leak into the Gulf of Mexico each year.

He concludes this section of the essay by saying:

Mother Nature has a way of taking care of herself; the Gulf’s waters contain natural microorganisms that break down oil.

By most accounts, local fisheries had recovered to more or less normal levels within two to three years after the Ixtoc-1 spill. Some believe that fishing bans in the wake of the spill alleviated overfishing in the region and helped total population.
Gue then comments on the popular reception of Macondo:

Macondo is likely to be a smaller spill than Ixtoc, though the latter was technically a much easier spill to manage because the water was only 160 feet deep and the well could be accessed by divers and from the surface. Nevertheless, it took PEMEX 10 months to drill the relief wells and bring the gusher under control. It’s a testament to the improvements in oilfield technology that relief wells located in 5,000 feet of water take less than half the time to drill as they did in 1979.

And although PEMEX tried unsuccessfully to contain the spill under a dome, BP’s recent efforts to funnel oil to the surface appear to have worked--an impressive feat given that this particular containment system had to be installed remotely by robotic submarines 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the sea.

But the press has made scant mention of Ixtoc. Most prefer to call Macondo the largest spill in US history and compare it to the Exxon Valdez. Although this claim is likely true, the media neglects to mention that BP’s disaster isn’t the largest spill to impact the Gulf of Mexico.

Even assuming only modest success with containment and an August completion of relief wells, the Macondo spill is likely to be far smaller than Ixtoc.

Of course, differences between the two spills might increase the Macondo’s impact. That list includes the leak’s proximity to sensitive coastal wetlands and the fact that microorganisms that break down oil are likely more active in shallower waters.

My point is simple: Macondo is an environmental disaster, but investors must separate pre-election political rhetoric and sensationalist media coverage from reality and history. Odds are that Macondo will turn out to be far less of a disaster than BP’s most vocal critics suggest.

You can get a similar, more historically sober perspective on Macondo by reading Steve Harvey's article on California's Lakeview oil flood in 1910. Harvey opens by saying:

Horrific though the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has been, its output is still short of what occurred a century ago in scrubby brush about 110 miles north of Los Angeles — site of the Lakeview gusher.

While some experts believe the well off Louisiana has spewed upwards of 60 million gallons of oil into the gulf, the Lakeview well rained about 378 million gallons over an area between the towns of Taft and Maricopa.

The spill following the April 20 oil rig explosion in the gulf is, of course, a much bigger environmental and economic disaster. But the two wells had one thing in common -- neither could be immediately capped.

Lakeview's geyser of crude, in fact, flowed for more than 17 months.

No one, and few plants or animals, lived in Lakeview at the time of the gusher, so it is hard to say how a viable ecosystem might have reacted to such a large spill. As it stands, though, Lakeview's ecology, spare as it might be, has returned to normal.

And then there is Mark Tutton's June 4th article on the 1991 Persian Gulf oil fiasco. He writes:

Between five and 10 million barrels of oil poured into the Persian Gulf in 1991 when Iraqi troops, retreating from their occupation of Kuwait, set fire to desert oil wells and opened the valves on oil rigs and pipelines.

The spill -- at least five times the most recent estimate of that spilled in the Gulf of Mexico -- devastated marine wildlife and coastal habitats in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Yet, against all the odds, the Persian Gulf appears to have shown amazing resilience in response to the ecological disaster.

Tutton goes on:

[A]ccording to researchers, in the years following the spill the Gulf's ecosystem began to make a remarkable comeback.

A 2008 joint German-Saudi research paper on the effects of oil pollution in the Persian Gulf stated that by 1994, fish and bird populations had returned to pre-spill levels. Whale, dolphin and turtle populations were largely unaffected, according to the same study. … 

The fishing industry was decimated after the oil spill and Iraqi mines made the Gulf a no-go area for Kuwaiti and Saudi fishermen. But, it too, had started to show signs of improvement by 1994, the same study shows, and is widely considered to have made a full recovery from the after effects of the spill today.

"What they found, and they've found in other places in the world, is that nature does recover," said Pilcher.

Although a colossal amount of oil was released into the Gulf, Pilcher said up to half may have simply disappeared from the water by a combination of evaporation and degradation by bacteria in the sea.

Tutton admits, however, that

…the oil spill has left the Gulf with some scars that have not yet healed. Ghadban said coral reefs have been damaged, particularly off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

And the heavier oil fractions, which don't evaporate or dissolve, have sunk into coastal sediments.

A 2003 U.S. study found huge quantities of oil in the sediment of salt marshes, mudflats and mangroves on the coast of Saudi Arabia.

Drawing comparisons between the Persian Gulf leak (petrastrophe?) and the Macondo leak, Tutton quotes Pilcher as saying:

"In terms of the clean up, I think some coastal habitats are just way too fragile to be touched.

"Some of those coastal marshes will probably be more damaged by clean-up activities than they would be if they were left to deal with the disaster on their own."

Now, as promised, here is some of what strikes about the concept of "ecological disaster" and the earth's "amazing resilience."

The imponderable vitality of the earth throws interesting light on the question of finality in nature at large. Not calling earth “Queen Gaia,” mind you, but it’s interesting how much of eco-anxiety presupposes a kind of terrestrial finality. As in, "Our pollution and consumption are hindering or crippling the earth from doing what it’s 'supposed to do'. damaging how it should function best."

I agree that AGW (“warmism”) is not only quite self-important (and anthropocentric) but also rife with teleology. Al Gore and other leaders in the environmental consciousness movement warn us that if we don’t respect Mother Earth, she will destroy for her own superior survival. The image of a splinter being extruded by a living organism, à la Tom Cruise’s redux of War of the Worlds, comes to mind. In his own inimitable way, George Carlin slings the same point across the room:

At about 5 minutes in, Carlin says this: "The planet will be here for a long, long, looong time, after we're gone. And it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, cuz that's what it does. It is a self-correcting system. The air and the water recover; the earth will be renewed…." Then at about 6 minutes, he says, "[T]he planet probably sees us as a mild threat, something to be dealt with. And I'm sure the planet will defend itself, in the manner of a large organism, like an ant colony or a beehive can muster a defense. I'm sure the planet will think of something." Whereupon follows a sinister reflection on how the earth has concocted viruses, and AIDS in particular, to destroy pesky humans.

Suddenly, Carlin shifts into his hippie persona––I could almost see "The Sixties" glint across his faintly tearful pupils––and offers a final mediation for the faithful. "Well," he concludes after his depiction of the earth creating viruses to humanity out, "that's a poetic note. And it's a start. And I can dream, can't I?" Carlin then adds that he doesn't worry about the little things––like endangered species or, presumably, AIDS––because, "I think we're part of a greater wisdom than we will ever understand. A higher order. Call it what you want. You know what I call it? The Big Electron. … It just is." This is Carlin's naturalist creed and the closest thing, as far as I know, he provides as an official, positive statement of his own worldview, rather than his customary negative ribbing of everything human, all-too-human. It is fascinating as always to see how finality––the self-protecting planet, the scheming earth, the ultimate unity of all things in The Big Electron––invariably finds its way into anything approaching metaphysics.

If the earth’s endurance can be seen as analogous form of biological teleology, it raises the question, How “high up” does teleology go on the ontological scale? To the moon-earth system? To the solar system itself? It’s hard to see what selective benefits the formation of the earth has over its non-formation. For a selectionist (I use the term to indicate post-Darwinist naturalisms which regard “natural selection” as the fundamental principle in nature), presumably, an organized terrestrial system is better able to harness otherwise dissipated energy (this is the line Alex Rosenberg takes in his controversial essay on “disenchanted naturalism” a few months ago), so over the aeons, our earth system was selectively produced. This of course begs the immense question why so few––or no other?––terrestrial systems exist as far as the known universe extends.

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