Let's Use Our Indoor Voices

Bad news out of the North Sea this week. Total, SA's Elgin oil platform has sprung a gas leak and is dumping a poisonous, explosive combination of methane, hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide into the air and water. As of right now, the exact source of the leak is unknown, as is how to fix it or how long that might take. [Update. According to the latest reports, Total has isolated the leak.]

Let's be clear. This isn't—at least not yet—a process safety disaster. Nobody has died. In spite of the open flare within 300 feet of the presumed leak location, nothing has bl own up. And counter-intuitive as it may seem, leaving the flare burning when the crew evacuated the rig might have been a good idea, the thinking being that the flare would burn off some of the excaping gas. If luck and the wind direction holds, the whole situation may quite literally blow itself out in a few days as the gases evaporate.

It seems as though Total has done everything right so far. It has evacuated its workers, shut down production, cooperated with government officials to impose a quarantine around the area to keep shipping and air traffic out of harm's way.  Now, four days after the initial leak was discovered, the situation is "stable," according to Total officials.

Of course, things could still go south in a hurry. That open flare is worrisome. Hydrogen sulfide in the water and air can't be good for any living things in the area. The longer the leak remains unplugged, the worse the situation gets. Total has already lost billions in value on the stock exchanges, and the real costs of repair are clicking up by the second.

Bad news all around.

In the best of all worlds, an event like this would be just one more piece of evidence to be brought forward in a rational discussion about the role of fossil fuels in the modern world. Is this yet another indication that we really do have to get more serious about finding alternative energy sources? How safe is it to get at these fuels far below the earth's surface? If weaning ourselves of our dependence on fossil fuels not the answer, what is? Do other living creatures besides humans have a voice in the answers? What about future generations? What about the economic and social costs of weaning ourselves from a fuel we're so dependent on?

Unfortunately, this isn't the best of all worlds, and already the screamers are out in full cry. Comparisons are already being made to a Deepwater Horizon-scale environmental disaster, which is certainly possible, but it is also certain that we're a long way from that yet. The Daily Mail online newspaper in the U.K. is comparing the situation to the Piper Alpha explosion, which seems silly on the face of it, since at this point, no one is on the oil rig to be killed, even if it were to explode. One Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, U.K. is on record saying of the methane, hydrogen sulfide/carbon dioxide mix, "You might as well put Agent Orange in the ocean," which could be technically true, but since we don't yet know the extent of the leak and how much material is evaporating on the surface, I'm not sure how helpful it is to just assume a worst-case scenario from the start.

Still, at least Boxall's assessment has some relationship to reality. Hydrogen sulfide IS bad stuff, and if it gets into the water on a large scale, nothing good is going to come of it. The Norweigan environmental group Bellona has taken to calling Elgin the "well from hell," not an especially helpful comment. Some of the fringier folks are all but accusing Total, Shell and the British government of lying about the extent of the disaster.  Of course, the U.K. Energy Minister's claim that the six-mile long slick on the sea surface is no longer than 1/16th the length of an Olympic swimming pool seems to set him up for such inferences.

The point is that hysteria on one side and minimizing legitimate concerns on the other aren't doing anyone any good. Oh, and look for the politicians on both sides to start making capital out of the Elgin leak, whether that only muddies the waters about what is to be done about oil dependence or not.

Don't get me wrong. I'm something of a greenie. I recycle. I grow some of my own veggies. I've taken to baking my own bread, and I own a quarter share of a CSA program with a local farmer who delivers fresh meat and eggs from his own land. I try to walk more and drive less.  I bring my own bags to the grocery store, and if given a choice between another 100 McMansions and a preserved patch of prairie or wetland, I'm voting for the prairie every time. Deliberate and/or careless pollution of the environment makes me cross.

Having come of age in the 60s and 70s, I do understand the necessary tactic of yelling and screaming to get attention. Sometimes it's the only way. But I think we're past that point with the fossil fuel debate. These are serious issues we have to address. There are multiple, equally legitimate and sometimes competing interests to be considered. If we're really going to make progress on this issue, it's time to listen to the voice of the prophet Isaiah, who counsels us, "Come, let us reason together."  

But reasoning together can't be done with hyperbole and demonizing one another and shouting at the top of our lungs. It's time we started the discussion using our indoor voices.