America's voracious oil consumption is criticized for many reasons in the media today, but three reasons seem to dominate the headlines. First, the Gulf oil disaster has galvanized public outrage at oil companies and led to questioning of our energy needs which push oil rigs out into treacherous deep waters. Second, climate change attracts significant attention, as academy award-winning films are made on the topic and the manufactured "Climategate"; scandal fills news articles with tales of espionage. Finally, as the Iraq War drags on and tensions with Iran remain high, every politician is giving lip service to the national security threat created by "our dependence on foreign oil." But what often gets ignored is perhaps the most obvious and persistent problem involved with oil use: air pollution.
Energy in Depth and the gas industry are deploying spin doctors to counter a new documentary being aired nationwide on HBO. This time around, the truths unearthed about what the impacts would be of methane gas drilling into the Marcellus Shale unveiled by the film Gasland, by scientists, and by investigative journalists, are all victims of a prolific oil industry smear campaign.
Quick refresher: Marcellus Shale is an extensive underground formation of shale in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and other states in the region that has received renewed attention both because of new estimates of the quantity of methane gas believed to be under these rocks, and because of the significant environmental concerns that have been raised about the method of extracting the gas from the shale. "Hydrofracking" is a process in which a fluid is injected at high pressure into oil or methane gas deposits to fracture the rock above and release the liquid or gas below. The process uses enormous amounts of drinkable water, along with toxic chemicals. It also releases radioactive materials and other hazardous substances within the shale deposits, a fact that has raised significant environmental and health concerns.
Conservatives may have moved quickly to dissociate themselves from Representative Joe Barton's apology to BP, but many on the right still believe that the establishment of a $20 billion escrow fund violated the legal rights of the company. A frequent claim is that the Obama administration has violated BP's due process rights. Appearing on ABC's This Week, George Will stated the creation of the escrow fund amounted to a confiscation of assets that circumvents due process. Former Washington Times writer Robert Stacey McCain argued in his blog that Rep. Barton was rightly concerned about due process when he apologized to BP. Michael Barone in National Review Online quipped that, "the Constitution does not command 'no person ... shall .... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; except by the decision of a person as wise and capable as Kenneth Feinberg." The Framers stopped at "due process of law." It is to be expected that conservatives care less about the decimated lives along the Gulf Coast than they do about a multinational corporation losing $20 billion over several years, even when its cash flow for this year alone will reach $30 billion, according its own estimates. What is a slightly more surprising is that they would completely misconstrue a fundamental legal concept in the process.
A federal judge sitting in Louisiana struck down the Obama Administration's six-month moratorium on new deep water drilling, despite the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico caused by BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling operation. Who is the unelected man standing in the way of permitting a six-month review of this inherently dangerous activity?
On June 15, the CEOs of ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Chevron and BP were grilled by the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources. Unsurprisingly, much of what they said was spin. They paraded industry investments in alternative energy and safety that make up a vanishingly small percentage of their balance sheets. BP's competitors claimed again and again that they would never have made the catastrophic mistakes that led to the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon. But the hearing's scariest moment came when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told the truth. Tillerson stated that when oil spills occur "there will be impacts." According to ExxonMobil, the cleanup effort launched by BP represents the best efforts of the oil companies. For the oil companies, this travesty is the cutting edge of safety and environmental protection.
BP and the media express quantities of oil gushing from BP's leak in the Gulf in different ways. The amount of oil coming out of the leak is most frequently expressed in barrels, but how much is that? Can people really relate to a barrel as a quantity? After all, we buy staples like gasoline, milk, and water by the gallon. To make it even more complicated for the public to understand the quantities being discussed, the amount of liquid in a barrel varies with what is being measured. Barrels of chemicals or food, for example, contain 55 gallons. A whiskey barrel is 40 gallons; a barrel of beer contains 36 gallons; a barrel of ale contains 34 gallons. (And the latter two are imperial gallons, which are just under two-tenths more than an American gallon.) All these variations in the barrel as a quantity of measure only further confuse the concept of what a barrel of oil looks like. Moreover, since oil companies started shipping oil in tankers they rarely actually ship oil in barrels anymore, so the barrel as a measurement has less practical use.
As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to dominate headlines around the world, public outrage is being focused more intensely upon BP and its gaffe-prone CEO Tony Hayward. But amidst this crisis, the public should not forget the atrocities committed by other massive oil companies. For example, Royal Dutch Shell's drilling operations have been spilling oil into the Niger Delta in Nigeria since 1958. Because Nigeria is an impoverished nation and oil revenues fund a majority of government operations, Shell and other companies have been able to drill and pollute without serious oversight for all these years. It is estimated that 13 million barrels of oil have spilled into the delta, making life even more difficult for the region's destitute residents. Shell blames the constant spills on attacks from "rebels," who are in fact minority ethnic groups who feel they have been exploited and displaced by foreign oil companies. But Shell would never consider pulling out of the region or finding ways to avoid ethnic strife. Instead, Shell has proceeded with business as usual, and spilled a record 14,000 tons of crude oil into the delta last year.