Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "Blowout in the Gulf" by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling *****

Ostensibly about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, this book proved to be much more. Sure, the first two chapters discuss the goings-on during the blowout and its immediate aftermath, and the last chapter discusses steps that can be taken to minimize the chances that such disasters happen again in the future, but in between are more than one hundred pages about the history of the oil industry. Having read Stephen Coll's book about Exxon just a short while ago, that one focusing mostly on Exxon from 1989 to 2010, I found this text much more reader friendly to a person less informed about the industry.

I found particularly interesting the discussion of how the petroleum industry came to be. Oil, which occasionally seeped up from various spots on the globe, was typically used for things like pitch, but it wasn't really used for energy consumption until the whale industry began to have problems providing enough in terms of supply for the world market. Looking for a means to find oil without killing ever-decreasing numbers of whales, one man hit upon the idea of using petroleum. Then, someone else, thought about the idea of drilling for oil, once oil seeps seemed to be exhausted.

There is also, in the book, an extensive discussion of oil technology--just how drilling works and what a blowout preventer is. That part was in some ways rather dull, and while written for a lay reader, still a bit technical for my tastes. Still, knowing just how that process works was useful to know.

Much of the text is given over to the idea of energy independence, which the authors think is a political promise without any substance. The United States began exporting more oil than it imports in 1971, and we are not going back (although there is no discussion of fracking, which offers, I suppose, possibilities for energy independence that we didn't have even a few years ago). What the authors are clear about is that oil is a finite resource and eventually, whether thirty years from now or one hundred (depending on what new technologies and discoveries might arise), we're going to have to deal with it. More drilling is not the solution; that simply leads to faster depletion. Rather, we need to find ways to conserve, and by doing that, we can avert an eventual disaster that we have control over.

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