It’s time to examine our high-octane society

Quite a difference from the 1960s until now. Back then, Jed Clampett shot at a possum and wound up with a few million dollars worth of “Texas Tea” gently bubbling out of the ground.

“And up through the ground come a bubblin’ crude” — Beverly Hillbillies theme song

“. . . a 1/4 inch diameter hole is large enough to ‘leak’ 5,000 barrels a day. That ‘leak’ would probably cut off your arm if you passed it in front of it.” — Greg Morton, retired manager of an offshore drilling service company, commenting on the “leak” in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the BP drill rig explosion

Quite a difference from the 1960s until now. Back then, Jed Clampett shot at a possum and wound up with a few million dollars worth of “Texas Tea” gently bubbling out of the ground. Of course, Jed was just a TV character, but oil was a lot easier to get out of the ground back then.

Now, we have amazing technology that will lower a drill pipe a mile down into the ocean and then a further three miles into rock to get at our civilization’s life blood.

But the devil is in the details. At four miles down, the pressure of the oil is likely around 20,000 pounds per square inch (thus the potential flesh wound mentioned above).

A further complication is that the oil has a significant amount of sand mixed in it. At 20,000 psi, that translates into one heck of a sandblaster. And that sandblaster will make short work of a quarter-inch hole. After a while it will become a much bigger hole. Morton thinks this is why the estimates of the leak volumes kept rising. In the initial days of the disaster, the estimate of leakage was 1,000 barrels daily. Then it went to 5,000 barrels daily. Now, a credible source has said it may be at 60,000 barrels daily. That’s equivalent to an Exxon Valdez spill every four days.

And what do we get for this technology? I mean beside the occasional catastrophe.

Well, let’s look at the only other BP drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s called Thunder Horse, and it is the largest semi-submersible drill rig in the world. At a cost of about US$5 billion, it was designed to help suck a quarter of a million barrels out of the ocean floor daily. The oil formation that it has been working on in recent years (also called Thunder Horse) is suspected to contain about a billion barrels of oil. It sounds like a lot, but it’s actually only 12 days of global supply.

A few years ago, the Thunder Horse rig nearly had a big boo-boo. In 2005, it was evacuated when Hurricane Dennis came through. But shortly after, it started to topple over in the water. It was later found that this was due to a small pipe that had allowed water to circulate freely between the ballast tanks.

But that’s small peanuts compared to the real story of Thunder Horse. The real story is that oil production from it has started to drop precipitously.

Not only has it never managed to suck the anticipated quarter million barrels daily out of the ground; production is dropping at an astonishing 25 per cent annually.

Thunder Horse will never come close to making good on its production promise of a billion barrels. But you won’t hear about that in the mainstream media, because we are still happily sucking oil out of the huge “super giant” fields (largely in the Middle East) that we discovered half a century ago. That’s fine, but the super giants are showing their age. Most are well past their peak of production. Some have tanked.

So more and more, we are relying on deep, offshore sources that either haven’t lived up to their promise (like Thunder Horse) or that haven’t been developed yet (like the new finds off the coast of Brazil) or that have created one big hell of a mess, like we’re seeing in the Gulf of Mexico.

We have picked the low hanging fruit. Jed Clampett is no more. It’s time that we take a serious strategic look at how (or if) our high-octane society will continue to function in the future.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to Visit the Energy and Ecology website at

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