Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is Offshore Drilling a Legitimate Enterprise?

Offshore oil drilling has, in the last two years, attracted more attention from the general United States public than it has had at any point in its history. Even before the April 20, 2010 disaster that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drill rig and unleashed a torrent of crude oil into the waters and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling had developed into a significant battleground issue with economic, cultural, and political dimension.

Depending on one’s point of view, offshore drilling is a necessary evil, a legitimate exploitation of natural resources, a second-best option forced on the oil and gas industry by excessive regulation of possible onshore oilfields, or a dangerous process justified only by profit and the US’s dependence on petroleum.

The dispute over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve in Alaska has recurred in Congress every few years since drilling was first proposed in 1977, and was a major rallying point for liberals after the Bush administration endorsed the idea in 2005. The chant of “Drill, baby, drill,” first heard at the 2008 Republican National Convention, likewise served as a rallying cry for conservatives during the latter part of the 2008 election and on through the first years of the Obama administration, right up until the news of the Deepwater Horizon disaster hit the world news on the morning of April 21, 2010.

This public tumult comes at a time when offshore drilling has, for all its hazards, become a vital part of the United States’ energy economy. A steadily increasing percentage of domestically-produced oil and natural gas comes from offshore sources: in 2009, 31% of the nation’s domestically-produced crude oil and 11% of its domestically-produced natural gas came from offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico alone. Data gathered by NOAA and MMS accounts for 3,858 oil platforms in just two of the “planning areas” in US waters in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a 2009 Minerals Management Service report, “proved reserves in the Gulf of Mexico Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) are estimated to be 20.30 billion barrels of oil and 183.7 trillion cubic feet of gas from 1,229 proved fields,” or roughly twice as much oil and seven times as much natural gas as the Prudhoe Bay cornucopia on the northern shores of Alaska was estimated to contain when that oilfield was first developed in the 1960s.

The complexity of offshore drilling has also grown immensely in the last several decades. In 1983, the deepest offshore well in the world was drilled in 760 feet of water, 13 miles off the coast of San Pedro, CA. A quarter century later, dozens of new wells are being installed each year in deep-sea locations (1 to 1.5 miles deep) and much further offshore; depths that were once extraordinary are now perforce normal. In 2009 alone, over three hundred new production wells were drilled in US waters in the Gulf, and nearly two-thirds of the active oil leases in the Gulf are in water more than 1,000 feet deep.

These deepwater locations are comparable to the one that blew out in April 2010 –designated MC 252-- during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, since most of them are being installed in the same oil and gas bearing geological formations. The deeper the water and the deeper the drilling, the more complex, expensive, and dangerous the operation becomes. Somewhat ironically, the last well the Horizon had completed prior to beginning the fateful one was the deepest well yet drilled at the time, a whopping 30,918 feet into the seabed under 4,132 feet of water.

The reason drilling in such difficult or sensitive areas has increased so dramatically is simple. The global oil economy is rapidly approaching “Hubbert’s peak,” a phenomenon first predicted by the scientist M. King Hubbert in 1956 and commonly known as “peak oil.” While new oil and gas resources can still be found, much of the accessible oil – the “reserves” or “proven reserves” in industry and governmental language-- has been consumed or is currently being extracted. In order to expand production or to replace wellfields that have ceased producing worthwhile quantities of oil and gas, the petroleum industry has to look to other sources, and what is left is more difficult and expensive to get. The days when a wildcatter in Texas or Wyoming could find vast new oilfields simply by looking for oil sheens on creeks are long gone. In many cases ‘new’ sources such as those in ANWR or the tar sands of western Canada have been known about for decades, but the cost/benefit balance that would render them profitable didn’t work out until oil became more scarce, driving up the worth of a resource that in earlier decades was of negligible value and making it cost-effective to exploit the resource.

On June 4, Sarah Palin complained on her Facebook page that “Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country's energy needs, but your [referring to ‘radical environmentalists’] protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It's catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proves it." This allegation is simply not true. What is true, though, is that most of the allegedly “safer” areas are already producing, already exhausted, or are too inaccessible, small, or difficult to be worthwhile. Most of them aren’t actually any safer, when all things considered.

The dilemma of whether to drill in ANWR or the ocean is a complex one. In either case, there is the potential for irreversible destruction of the environment—neither area is truly ‘safer’ than the other. Each area is home to numerous rare species of animal and plant life, who would be trampled and poisoned.

Other concerns include possible incompatibilities with other uses of the areas. The Gulf of Mexico, for example, is both a major commercial fishing area and crosshatched with scores of shipping lanes, and freighter captains enjoy navigating hundred-thousand-ton cargo ships through an obstacle course of oil platforms about as much as fishermen enjoy pulling up nets full of oil-poisoned shrimp.

Drilling in the ANWR or other remote areas is also not much simpler or cheaper than drilling in mile-deep water tens or hundreds of miles out to sea, or for that matter, not much easier than drilling at the South Pole. Consider the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, where a massive infrastructure of roads, pipelines, well complexes, oil storage facilities, supertankers, and company towns had to be constructed in a bitterly hostile arctic environment in order to extract the oil and get it to market. The 800-mile Trans-Alaskan Pipeline System alone cost $8 billion. All of this infrastructure is extremely expensive to operate and maintain. There is even a television show about the truck drivers who regularly ferry supplies north across the ice and tundra. The truth is that as profitable as it has proven, Prudhoe Bay wasn’t considered economically worthwhile until the gasoline shortages of the early 1970s drove petroleum prices up sharply.

The oil industry routinely weighs the costs of a offshore drilling against on-shore drilling, based on the amount and quality of oil and gas that could be extracted, and the cost to get it out of the ground and onto the market. A fifth-generation mobile drill rig such as the Deepwater Horizon—built at the cost of half a billion dollars, and with a billing rate of nearly half a million dollars a day for the rig, her crew, and all the support ships and other necessities—is a major item on any budget sheet. Add to that against the costs of having to fit out another arctic oilfield on the scale of Prudhoe Bay. BP is, in fact, contemplating exactly such a project, involving constructing an artificial island in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of Alaska.

Offshore drilling is an intrinsically dangerous and environmentally risky process. It can be done safely, if the proper safeguards are in place to prevent spills or to clean up pollution before it does too much damage. The problem is that the equipment and infrastructure to cope with oil pollution on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon’s simply does not exist. While a great deal of thought and effort has been put into devices such as blowout preventers and “Christmas trees,” which are intended to prevent spills, it is surprising to see how little the art and science of cleaning a spill up has advanced since the late 1960s, when the primary source of spills were leaks from ships in harbors rather than the relatively few and comparatively small offshore drilling and production rigs in use at the time. Despite the media attention given to “magic boxes,” “top hats,” and similar devices used in attempts to shut off the flow of oil and gas from the well, the primary tools for cleaning up spilled oil are still containment booms, skimmers, pumps, and brute manpower, and they are wholly inadequate for combating spills of the current magnitude.

Congressman John Culbertson of Texas described the Deepwater Horizon disaster as a ‘statistical anomaly’ in a June 18 open letter to President Obama, in which he protested the federal government reinstating its off-again, on-again moratorium on new offshore drilling. In one sense he is correct—only one of the thousands of wells in the Gulf blew out. On the other hand, consider the amount of damage this one well has done, the inability of BP and the federal government to cope with the disaster, and the amount of destruction that even three or four more blowouts of the same size could wreak.

In the long run, however, the choice between wildlife preserve and ocean will ultimately disappear, once scarcity and the inevitable depletion of existing oilfields has driven the cost of oil up and availability down. The situation will change from an either/or decision to a both/and situation, in which the US is forced by economic necessity to drill everywhere there is oil, regardless of the increasing costs to extract it.

Prudhoe Bay is estimated to be four-fifths depleted. Unless the US can reduce its dependence on petroleum, it will ultimately face the need to drill in both areas regardless of cost and consequences, simply because it cannot do without the oil. Bearing that sad truth in mind, the nation should seriously attempt on a large scale what has been often talked about over the last twenty years, but towards which nothing has been done—developing renewable energy sources and reducing the need for fossil fuels.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Some thoughts on Proposition 8 and gay marriage

Most of you have by now read about the August 4, 2010 decision on Perry v. Schwarzenegger, more commonly known as “The Proposition 8 case.” I am pleased to say I quietly rejoiced at Judge Vaughan Walker’s decision, and (rather foolishly) stayed up late into the night reading his 138-page findings. This made the following workday a little challenging.

Proposition 8 was a bad bit of law that should never have been passed in the first place, and which got as far as it did only because of a moral panic created in the last weeks of the 2008 election season by wealthy conservative religious groups, including the strange bedfellows of fundamentalist Christians and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons, who poured millions of dollars in from outside California to buy ad time and influence the state’s voters. It is, simply put, a mean, selfish, and vindictive attempt to take away a right, enjoyed from birth by everyone else, that a community long denied that right had recently gained after an exhausting struggle. It is also a conscious attempt to establish prejudice and discrimination in the law before which all humans are supposed to be equal.

It is also an outstanding object lesson in why some things are, in a sense, too important to be put to a vote. It sounds counterintuitive in a republic in which the popular vote is often seen as the ultimate expression of the peoples’ will and the country’s values. The popular vote is not perfect, nor is any other part of our electoral system. Some rights are, however, so important that they cannot and should not be subject to the variable whims of the electorate—for example, the Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment, and so on. The people should no more be able to vote away their own inalienable rights (or anyone else’s, for that matter) than they should be able to vote themselves ten feet tall and purple. In fact, most of our system of government is constructed as a system of checks and balances, such as judicial review, which are intended to put the brakes on popular enthusiasms, an intent that predates even the Constitution itself (c.f John Locke and Edmund Burke).

As an analogy, consider the hypothetical situation in which white Southerners (for example) had at some time in the past sponsored an amendment to the US Constitution that defined human beings as including white people only. They could quite easily have done this, as it would have reflected widespread popular sentiment at the time. The Commonwealth of Virginia, for that matter, for many years had invasive genealogical criteria for determining the race of an individual in support of laws against interracial marriage.

Referenda such as Proposition 8 are in a sense even more troublesome than simple elections, because they circumvent many of the other balancing organs of government. In this instance, a process that was originally intended to give people more of a direct voice in government was used by to strip part of the population of their existing civil rights and impose discrimination based on simple prejudice.

“Animus towards gays and lesbians or simply a belief that a relationship between a man and a woman is inherently better than a relationship between two men or two women, this belief is not a proper basis on which to legislate," as Judge Walker wrote. In condensed language, “prejudice doesn’t make good law.”

That’s exactly the issue here. The law. Not religion. Not popular prejudice. Not rumor. Not some half-mythical rose-colored view of the United States’ past as a continent-spanning Mayberry.

When you strip away all the religion, the histrionics, and the flag-waving paeans to American culture and pare the matter of gay marriage down to the issue that really matters—equal protection under the law—what becomes clear is that there is no adequate explanation for why gay men and women should NOT be allowed to marry, any more than there was any adequate explanation for bans on interracial marriage. “Civil unions,” for their part, fail the equality test.

Marriage is, as far as federal, state, and local government goes, strictly a matter of civil law disposing a contract between two people. That’s strictly it. Legal rights. Leviticus is nowhere to be found in a court of law.

The Catholic Church, the Mormons, the Southern Baptist Convention, the conservative Islamic community, and the Hasidic Jews don’t have to marry homosexuals in their rites if they don’t want to, because they’re not the government and they don’t (and shouldn’t) deal in civil rights. Personally, I am of the opinion that any church that involves itself in politics should lose its tax-exempt status. Religion isn’t the government’s business (at least, it isn’t until someone gets violent about it, at which point the ghost of Matthew Shepherd will rise again). That’s the flip side of the separation of church and state—religion is to be protected from the government as much as the government needs to be separate from religion.

More to the point, if you’re interesting in marrying another man, you’re probably not likely to belong to one of those religious groups that so vituperatively disapproves of the practice in the first place, rendering the point of the objection moot.

Anyways, the dramatis personae in Perry v Schwarzenegger:

Plaintiffs (people bringing the suit): Kristin Perry, Sandra Steir, Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo, two couples who were denied marriage licenses because they were intent on same-sex marriages.

Proponents aka the Defendants (supporters of Proposition 8) included the official proponents of Proposition 8, organized as a group named Protect Marriage. Oddly, although the suit itself named Governor Schwarzenegger and a number of other state government officials (in their capacities as heads of state agencies) as defendants, California’s Attorney General, Jerry Brown, declined to defend Proposition 8 because in his office’s view the amendment violated the state constitution. None of the other state officials named in the suit lifted a finger to defend the amendment, which is probably a good metric for how much official support Proposition 8 ever enjoyed in government. The result was that Protect Marriage, an intervening defendant (someone not named in the suit but who asserts a right to participate in the trial process because it involves them) wound up as the sole defenders of the Proposition 8 amendment—which in my opinion is only as it should be. Proposition 8 was their baby—they should defend it.

It was, on the face of it, the proponents’ fight to lose, which they did in a most spectacular fashion. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the case is how it highlighted the intellectual bankruptcy of the Proposition 8 supporters, who offered no hard evidence, no real experts, no data, and no first-person testimonials from people affected by the issues at hand. As the proponents learned to their humiliation, prejudice will only get you so far. A court of law is not like an election. Every statement and fact is ruthlessly scrutinized and tested to the breaking point, so while it is easy to splash anti-gay falsehoods all over the commercial breaks in the 6 o’clock news, it is a different matter to attempt the same wholesale slander and demagoguery in a courtroom.

The plaintiff’s lawyers amassed a mountain of evidence to support their case, with nine expert witnesses and seven lay witnesses, addressing everything from economics to history, psychology, and the prejudices and obstacles encountered in everyday life as a gay person.

The proponents of Proposition 8 called only two witnesses during the entire process, and both of those received short shrift from the judge because they had no evidence for their testimony. Judge Walker singled out David Blankenhorn of the Institute of American Values for some particularly scathing criticism, finding that Blankenhorn “lacks the qualifications to offer opinion testimony and, in any event, failed to provide cogent testimony in support of proponents’ factual assertions,” and that Blankenhorn’s testimony “should be given essentially no weight.”

One would assume that in a case of this magnitude, the proponents would have called out their biggest guns and leading intellectual lights, men of the caliber of William F. Buckley or William Jennings Bryan, who understand law and society and who can have an informed discussion on the great issues of the day. Such brains were nowhere to be found on the proponents' side-- in the case of a cause as odious as Proposition 8, maybe they don't exist. Instead, with nobody in their camp to call upon but (apparently) a clutch of bigots and dupes, the proponents brought the proverbial knife to a gunfight.

Several of the expert witnesses the proponents deposed before the trial began subsequently refused to testify in support of the proponents’ case. The plaintiffs promptly entered these witnesses’ depositions as evidence on the plaintiffs’ behalf, since their testimony appeared to support the plaintiffs’ case better than the proponents’.

The high (or low, depending on whose side you’re on) point of the trial was when the plaintiffs called Mr. Hak-Shing William Tam, one of the proponents and an organizer of Protect Marriage, as an adverse witness. Mr. Tam, who is secretary of the America Return to God Prayer Movement, a fundamentalist Christian organization, did a spectacular job of showing himself to be an uneducated, theocratic bigot who could point to nothing more specific than “the Internet” as a source for his statements linking homosexuality to child molestation, polygamy, incest, and Satanism. Satanism is obviously a major theme of concern in civil rights. Consider it this way: Mr. Tam is one of the heavy lifters behind Proposition 8, but he is such a blatantly ungrounded religious fanatic that not even the proponents' lawyers wanted him to testify on behalf of Proposition 8.

In other words, the proponents got pwned, and pwned so thoroughly and dramatically that reading Judge Walker’s decision actually made me laugh out loud.

In the end, the proponents failed to prove that gay marriage caused any significant harm, while the plaintiffs proved that forbidding gay marriage was first, discrimination, and second, inflicted social, economic, and other harms on the people involved, and that it therefore violated the California State Constitution.

If you ask me, the good guys won this one.