If ever there was a time to get off of oil and plug into offshore wind power, it is now, argues Mike Tidwell, a clean-energy activist and veteran journalist with deep roots in the bayou.
Nearly five months after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April, many Americans still lack a sense of scale when it comes to offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Quick: How many oil and gas structures are there in the Gulf today? A few dozen? A few hundred?
Answer: Roughly 4,000. And what does that look like? Well, if you lined them up end to end, the platforms would stretch from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, rising more than 10 stories above the ground and with a width nearly that of a modern aircraft carrier. It takes about 85,000 full-time workers just to maintain this offshore oil field, more than four times the number of workers in the U.S. space program.
What’s more, thanks to something called “directional drilling,” those platforms actually tap into 5,969 active wells. That means there are nearly 6,000 literal punctures in the Gulf floor where oil or gas is coming up. Deepwater Horizon’s collapse ruptured just one of those wells. And each well, of course, has a blowout prevention device of some kind, all of them carrying the now-dubious promise of permanent safety.
Did you have any idea how many wells there are in the Gulf? I certainly didn’t until I stumbled upon this story as a freelance writer several years back. The Washington Post had asked me to write about Cajun culture along the bayous of south Louisiana. So I grabbed a backpack and sleeping bag and actually hitchhiked—by boat—through this coastal region, thumbing my way from shrimp boat to oyster boat to crab boat. One night I snagged a ride on an oil-industry “supply boat” heading out into the northern Gulf to deliver tools to a platform dozens of miles away. What I saw over the next 10 hours changed my life forever. It shocked me so completely that I altered my career, becoming a clean-energy activist in the fight against oil dependency and global warming.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig, it turns out, is just one exploding star in a galaxy of platforms and wells. That galaxy is way too big to fix with regulatory reforms alone. The only sustainable solution is to get off oil as fast as we can and get into electric cars and trucks. We can power most of those vehicles with renewable energy, including large supplies coming from modern windmills along our ocean shores. We can even make the switch in a few short years, not decades, if we truly commit.
Offshore energy doesn’t have to ruin us, in other words. It can actually help save us. After a long summer of blackened beaches, that’s a good thing to know.
I first traveled into the Gulf’s oil maze in May 2000 with a Cajun boat captain named Tee Brud Griffin. He and I sat in the wheelhouse of his 160-foot-long, steel-hulled ship. We had just left the Louisiana coast, headed southeast toward a distant drilling rig, when Tee Brud (his name means “little brother” in Cajun French) grabbed a nautical chart and unfurled it across a table.
He gestured toward a seemingly endless expanse of small black squares spread across the chart, filling the water from the Texas coastline all the way to the Florida panhandle. The greatest concentration of squares was off the coast of Louisiana. “Each one of those represents a different platform,” he said.
So many squares. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But proof was just outside the boat. As darkness fell, the first actual platforms were coming into full view. We were passing within a few hundred yards of the titanic structures, their steel-and-concrete legs plunging into the water, their heliports and cranes towering hundreds of feet above the waves. Land was still visible behind us as I began counting. A dozen platforms were already within sight.
Griffin drew my attention back to the nautical chart. “They even form constellations,” he said. “The platforms, they form constellations.”
Sure enough, so numerous are these manmade structures that they group themselves into shapes not unlike the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross. With his finger, Griffin drew the “Bunny Ears,” the “Barbeque Pit,” and the “Circle Field”—all formed by real platforms, some rising to enormous heights above the sea. Boat captains often “navigate” by these shapes, he said.
Outside, the platforms continued to roll by, roaring with the sound of giant diesel generators, humming with the knocks and bangs of drilling and pumping. Some were crowned with gas flares stretching 10 feet high, burning off excess natural gas.
Why, I wondered, doesn’t every American know this imagery of Gulf platforms as well as we know the shape of the Golden Gate Bridge or the awesome size of the Grand Canyon? What an indictment of our media and of our political leadership. What a measure of our addiction to oil and the depth of our denial.
Addiction and denial. How else to explain our lack of collective understanding, even now, of just how huge the drilling operation is in the Gulf?
We were surrounded—engulfed—by the ugly, noisy universe of mechanical towers, each brilliantly lit up with a range of hazard lights and dormitory lights and scattered flares. It was a clear night in the Gulf, and the real stars were very bright above, creating the impression—fantastic but unshakable—that these rigs really were reflections of the twinkling lights of the cosmos.