The oil industry pollutes.
The dirtiness of the industry is too easy to forget amid conversations about the effect of oil money on a nation’s politics, the effect of OPEC on the world economy, or corruption in contracting. They’re all important, but the background to it all is that the oil industry is nasty. The whole game is about finding the tarry remains of slow-cooked mesozoic and paleozoic algae, poking holes into the ancient seabeds where these delicacies have converted into a carcinogenic soup and collected harmlessly for tens to hundreds of millions of years, pumping it up, cooking and separating it into component chemicals, and selling it to billions of customers. At each stage in the game, there are countless pipes and valves and transfers of a stinky, slippery liquid. There’s no way to avoid it: a bit will get lost to the air, the water, the soil. The trick is to get that “bit” to be as small as possible.
Crude oil’s most water-soluble and possibly most toxic constituent is benzene, which is banned from U.S. tap water at concentrations above 5 parts per billion. That’s a half an ounce per olympic-sized swimming pool.
What’s amazing is that people consume 84 million barrels a day of this stuff, more than 4.8 cubic kilometers a year, and normally, the percentage that escapes to surface environments like soils, rivers and Gulfs of Mexicos before being burned is so close to zero that few people know what crude oil smells like. (I say “normally” because the current Gulf spill appears to be a big increase from the usual level of industry crappiness.) Even the more pedestrian gasoline and motor oil are witnessed mostly as droplets on the asphalt landscape of filling stations rather than wholesale spills.
One place where oil escapes from the supply chain is at the wellhead. Oil fields are often flooded with underground water, which comes up with the crude. For example, Pacific Rubiales Corp. has fields in Colombia where every barrel of oil comes up with five or more barrels of water. That water needs to be disposed of. In North America, it’s often injected into another formation. (I know I’m paranoid, but this strikes me as the “if anyone gets sick, it’ll be far enough from here that it’ll take them forever to pin the blame on me” strategy.) Rubiales used to treat its water and dump it in a river; they are working on wells to inject hundreds of thousands of barrels a day into the ground. When there are retention ponds like the one shown in the pictures below, U.S. rules say to cover them in fencing to keep migratory waterfowl from becoming flying tarballs.
It’s a shame that Venezuela, like most OPEC countries, doesn’t do enough to keep its oil industry clean. I think international environmental groups and most of all supporters of the Venezuelan government should speak up.
That said, one shouldn’t overstate the case. In April, I snorkeled at Puinare, a beach in the harbor at Puerto La Cruz. The bay, which includes both Puerto la Cruz and Jose, is the busiest oil port in Venezuela, with more than 90 laden tankers departing monthly. The live coral started within meters of shore. I floated in an endless school of electric blue minnows and dived alongside the omnipresent parrotfish. Rocks were crusted with fragile invertebrates, including thousands of white and red serpulid worms, tiny christmas trees that disappear into their shells with the slightest perturbation. It was one of the healthiest-looking underwater environments I have seen, putting to shame anything I saw in the oil-free but hurricane-frought Yucatan.
There are also macro benefits to the oil industry. The availability of oil money has probably done more to protect Venezuela’s Amazon than any number of forest rangers could have. It’s the lighter side of Dutch Disease. Illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, which have decimated rain forests from Brazil to Madagascar, are export industries. In an oil state, non-oil export industries don’t fare well, reducing the pressure to log and convert the wilderness into pasture.
Anyway, a couple pictures. Enjoy.