Friday, May 21, 2010

BP, the Euro and Kevin Costner?

Well this is my second time around writing this whole post, since the first one was lost and even the autosave draft was lost. Thank you Blogger, thank you...

(Dead duck surrounded by oil mirroring the sky. Image credit: George Silk)

Yesterday, Representative Richard Markey of Massachussetts managed to extract live video footage of the oil leaking from the ill-fated well that was the Deepwater Horizon from BP. Interestingly enough, BP also announced, just yesterday, that their siphon pipe was now siphoning off 5,000 barrels of oil a day from the 3 mile deep well that keeps on giving. Well, that's quite interesting because just a short time ago, BP was claiming that 5,000 barrels was the total daily leakage rate. Scientists, who had decried that figure and asked for this video footage, have estimated that the actual leak may be substantially greater than that. (As in maybe 10-12, or even more than that number of times greater.) Sure enough, the alarming footage that you can see from the so-called SpillCam, (when you can see it that is... the site has been so overloaded they are trying to swap out a different video system with higher bandwidth) indicates that far more oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. BP and even the House of Representatives appear to be surprised at the immense interest in seeing this footage. You can also see the incredibly depressing footage from the Washington Post live feed. I look at this video feed and all I can think of is that I want there to be more of a push toward alternative energy than ever I did before. The House appears to at least be giving lip-service to the the issue of alternative energy if their website is any indication. More so than the Senate.

Anyway, imagine my surprise this morning on reading that the current cleanup plans may involve the actor/director Kevin Costner? Costner it seems has been interested in oil cleanup since making the film Waterworld, which was released in 1995. Amazingly, Costner has invested fifteen years and some $24M USD of his own money in developing centrifugal oil separators that will filter or sift oil out of sea water. The US Coast Guard and BP will start implementing six of his huge  centrifugal oil separators next week in an effort to protect Louisiana's imperiled wetlands. Jumping on the Hollywood bandwagon is director James Cameron, who's offered the use of the deepwater submersibles used to gather the footage of the Titanic wreck, and Robert Redford, who is filming a new set of commercials for the National Resources Defense Council touting the need for promoting research in alternative energy. Which brings us to the issue of the struggling Euro and the European Union angle.

The US has lagged behind much of the first and developing world when it comes to alternative energy development. Indeed we can look to Japan, China and India for much of the current activity in the arena of solar energy. Europe has been a stronghold for development and implementation of alternative energy, as well. In particular, Norway gains fully 99% of its electricity from hydro sources and is not carbon powered at all (that's right Norway, the same country with the seed vault in Svalbard). Likewise Iceland with its geothermal energy yields is off the carbon sources. China, which of course has a huge reputation, as does the US, for coal powered electricity, has been leading the way in recent times for development of solar energy methods. But solar energy companies have been hard hit with the double whammy of the US and European economies faltering. CNN's The Buzz had an article just yesterday about how the European debt crisis is likely to impact the green energy industry. The reasons are complex. The growing austerity in the EU, even among big players like Germany is a factor, but another issue is that at about $67 USD per barrel for crude oil, down off a comparative $90 USD high, the European memory for the oil crisis is about as short as that here in the US. It's easy to forget the reasons why there was that big push toward alternative energy when oil is cheap.

Attention span and commitment seem to be two things that are lacking on the American energy scene. Ed Elanjian, chief executive officer of EnviroFinance Group, a Sacramento, Calif.-based specialty investor and lender focusing on alternative energy, was quoted in The Buzz article as saying, “that there needs to be a ‘consistent act of will" to make solar energy and other forms of alternative energy viable. That's a process that could require 10 to 15 years of focus”. A consistent act of will? You mean like during the Civil War or WWI or WWII? I'm feeling so hopeful at that idea, aren't you?

But then I have to say that I'm incredibly surprised at reading about Kevin Costner, who'd I'd always thought of as some puffed up actor/director with media-spun interests in the environment. All I can offer are kudos to the man. If even half of what's in that LA times article is true (yeah, I'm cynical even if I'm no nymph...) he had not just commitment for the past 15-20 years but put in a heck of a chunk of personal money into the idea of developing a way to remediate the oil-fouled water. Maybe our legislators, and even the general public, could take a leaf from that book- the idea of genuine commitment to independent, sustainable energy, our environment and the world around us. I wonder how many Americans can even sustain their understanding of the link between our over-dependence on foreign oil and US over-militarism and terrorism? What if we spent less money on the military and more money on the long-term goal of energy independence and ended up with some left over to lend a helping hand to the third world instead of offering a military presence to them or to their neighbors?

We need commitment and an act of will on the part of our legislators and our voters. In order to make alternative energy viable in this country we need the government to subsidize research in the area and we need people who want to try to use alternative energy in their day to day life to receive incentives (without jumping through endless hoops to do so) for implementing it.

In the meantime, I'll be hoping that I don't turn as iridescently blue as the tiny corpse above while I hold my breath waiting for that act of will on the part of our government. We can hope that a lot of people in Gulf states begin to question the political will in Washington to effect change we can believe in and so desperately need. And maybe as a result of that questioning, we can develop the will to make changes in our everyday lives, as well.

Edited to add:

I've been surprised further to learn that Costner bought the rights to this technology from the federal government in 1995 and that his brother Dan is reportedly a scientist. You can read more about the centrifuges, the largest of which is capable of separating 210,000 gallons of oil a day, at a rate of about  200 gallons a minute here at the NY Times Green Blog

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