Saturday, August 7, 2010
Oil spill, tankers, and straits, oh my!
So glad to read that the Gulf Coast oil spill has ended. It's further good news that the warm water and wave action, plus bacteria that eat carbon all seem to be degrading the oil in the water to a much less harmful state much faster than expected. That said, the Obama administration seems unsure of how to characterize the aftermath - happy jubilation or stern oversight still. Two high level officials declared that 75% of the oil has already been degraded (but many scientists are more cautious, especially concerning possible amounts deep underwater yet that have not surfaced or degraded).
Regardless, BP put a lot of money ($20 billion minus whatever has already been paid out) in escrow to continue cleanup and make claim payouts to fishermen and businesses hit in various ways. Shallow well oil pumping is back on line, though deep water oil pumping is in various stages of hold. Supporters of President Obama's six-month drilling moratorium were generally shocked to find out that most residents of coastal Louisiana -- the people most devastated by BP's questionable handling of the Deep Water Horizon accident -- appeared more angry at Obama for shuttering rigs than they were at BP. So, there is some thought the moratorium may end sooner, as people realize that we "need" all the oil we can get (economy wise).
4.9 million barrels of oil spilled in this 3 month incident - that is 2 and 1/2 large tankers worth, and as an earlier post noted, there's about 80 million barrels on the ocean at any given time moving around in tankers. The very large tankers are nearly a quarter mile in length.
Three supertankers such as these can carry all of the oil used by Japan in a day. Ominously, one such large tanker with a full load, was attacked a few days ago. Experts believe a suicide small vessel drove up and detonated next to the hull - apparently amateur al-qaeda types: deadly intentions, but not the skills. The tanker's hull was damaged but not split.
Where it was attacked geographically worries a lot of security experts, not to mention most of the world's leaders concerned over a more or less smoothly running global economy. The attack occurred in the Straits of Hormuz, in the narrow waterway between Oman and Iran through which 40% of the world's crude oil is exported. Oil from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states, all pass through this narrow channel - one tanker that was damaged or sunk in that choke point would make life interesting ...
That particular tanker (Japanese owned by the way), may go on after inspection, heading for Japan. If so, it will pass through another notorious strait between Malaysia and Indonesia - the strait of Malacca. If this shipping lane were to be closed, ships would have to meander hundreds of extra miles and days to get around this gap. In 2006, an estimated 15 million barrels per day were transported through the strait.
(Actually, if you look closely at the map, you can see that Thailand to the north of the strait is a long narrow strip of land. It has offered to build a "Panama Canal" type channel across its peninsula further north, though Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore would not be too happy with the reduced traffic ...)
But let's not dwell on the what ifs, just be aware that oil powers this world, for better or worse. There are a lot of countries with security plans and guards in place for both locations, and from a scenery standpoint, the strait of malacca has some pretty nice coves.