Dominic Lawson: Not such a big spill after all

Ruthless business competitors as they undoubtedly are, big oil companies have as much concern for humankind as their environmentalist critics
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The Independent Online

Barack Obama's media advisers were quite distressed when the President travelled down to the Louisiana coastline last week to make his first on-the-spot statement about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Their distress was caused by what they didn't discover, rather than what they did. Despite their frantic requests, no photogenic dying oil-covered birds could be found to form a backdrop for the Presidential tirade as he weighed into BP.

The same fact – the oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon rig has not (yet) hit the coastline itself – presumably explains why the incident has not been big on the television news, for all the alarm and even hysteria that has been expressed. On a visual medium there is little enduring interest to be had in footage of oil floating on water – even if it is a lot of oil on a lot of water.

BP's chief executive, Tony Hayward, did manage to put his foot in the sticky stuff, however, when he told a reporter last Friday: "The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume." Mr Hayward's observation – we might term it the "pissing in the pool" argument – was valid enough; but this was just another demonstration of the fact that what the press call a "gaffe" is when a person in authority blurts out the truth. It never seems to go down well, especially if that person is the officially designated bad guy.

Obama certainly needed to express the greatest possible Presidential outrage at BP – or "British Petroleum" as he anachronistically but understandably insisted on describing the oil company involved. Only last month he had outraged the environmentalists who had helped finance his Presidential campaign when he reversed years of US energy policy by opening up a vast swath of coastal waters to the oil drilling industry. Obama had declared at the time that: "It turns out that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." A President of the United States does not like to be made to look ridiculous: no wonder this one felt he needed to make an example of BP, even suggesting that the federal law covering damages from oil spills should be changed retroactively so that the company faced no limit on any possible claims.

Yet, on economic rather than purely political grounds, Obama has nothing to be ashamed of. Compared with George Bush's policy of massive subsidies for US farmers to produce ethanol from wheat, the new President's preference for the opening up of additional acreage for those who want to produce fuel from hydrocarbons rather than carbohydrates is sublimely rational. Leave aside the obvious moral point that the driving up of worldwide food prices – the consequence of Bush's policy – punishes the poor above all; the policy didn't even make sense on its own justification of protecting the planet from global warming.

As the science writer Matt Ridley points out: "How much fuel does it take to grow fuel? Answer: about the same amount." It turns out, what with all the fuel needed – the tractors, the pesticides – in the growing and distillation process, that there might even be an overall loss of energy in so called biofuels, compared with a 600 per cent average energy return gained in the process of drilling and refining oil. (This, incidentally, is why the oil companies are able to pay such vast taxes and why we, their consumers, can afford proportionately even larger duties on the use of their product, thus financing the modern welfare state).

Ridley also observes that it takes about 130 gallons of water to grow a single gallon of maize ethanol, while it takes less than three gallons of water to extract a gallon of gasoline. Yet this is the demented strategy which not just America, but also the European Union, had made mandatory, in order, so they said, to have a more "sustainable energy future".

There are those who argue that this is not a case for the Obama policy of meeting the demand for energy by burning up more of the remains of dead dinosaurs buried deep beneath the US continental shelf but for abandoning altogether the energy sources that created the industrial revolution, and, of course, to shun the more modern alternative of nuclear power.

The trouble for these "dark greens" is that the overwhelming majority of people (including, I suspect, even the constituents of Brighton Pavilion who 12 days ago elected Caroline Lucas to be Britain's first Green MP) would not like the consequences one little bit. It is the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels which lifted everyone – at least in this country – out of the abject poverty of the pre-industrial age, and its abandonment could have an equal and opposite effect. It is hardly surprising that such developing countries as China and India are scandalised by the suggestion that they should shun the same path to prosperity that we took, which is essentially why they (together with Brazil and South Africa) rejected the carbon emission targets proposed at the Copenhagen UN summit last December.

This is not an argument that the big oil companies, such as BP, are motivated in any way as institutions by a desire to save the world from poverty; yet, ruthless business competitors as they undoubtedly are, I suspect that they have at least as much concern for humankind as their environmentalist critics. As the Marxist website Spiked observed last week, it is striking how little mention there has been of the 11 workers who were killed in the blow-out on the Deepwater Horizon: "The potential for the deaths of birds seems to exercise commentators far more than the fate of the men on the rig."

Yes, there will be ecological damage caused by the 5,000 barrels of oil a day which has been spewing from the stricken rig. Yet this is not much more than the natural oil seepage which occurs spontaneously in the petroliferous Gulf of Mexico, and has done for millennia. Obviously, that is much more widely dispersed and is absorbed naturally by microbes which have evolved precisely to perform that function; but that will continue to happen for yet more millennia – by contrast, the leak from Deepwater Horizon will very soon be capped.

Doubtless the commentators will refuse to be reassured by that; and certainly President Obama will be relieved that he at least refused last month to open up the Pacific seaboard for oil drilling. Similar arguments apply there, too, however. A year ago scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute produced a peer-reviewed paper showing that oil seepages "equivalent to up to 80 Exxon Valdez oil spills" have over the millennia made their way into sediments in the Santa Barbara channel: these are the vast natural seepages over and above the amounts the microbes have been able to absorb.

I doubt that BP will try to argue that Big Oil is just man's way of collecting up the leaking hydrocarbons that the best-evolved microbes cannot devour. Even its boss – for all that he is a geologist rather than a politician – would recognise that to be a provocation too far. He wouldn't want another visit from the President.