More on that oily lagoon

Pond, sky, bushes

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.


Bird in oilfield. Don't fret, it was born that color.

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.

Person playing with oil

My friend using a stick to pull up waxy, tarry guck from the surface of the water

Lagoon overview

Pond with scum of produced oil in foreground

5 thoughts on “More on that oily lagoon

  1. locojhon

    Great blog, Setty!
    Great first person investigative reporting, snorkel and all. (It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it…and all..and good photos, too)
    Didn’t try it in the pond, eh? (I wouldn’t either.)
    Regarding the pond and any other above-ground petroleum or other waste repository–anything that leaves the pond will pollute–whether by evaporation, overflow or infiltration into the water table, presupposing pond floor/walls are permeable. The pond itself is essentially dead, and its highest and best use might be as a laboratory for treating other similar crimes-against-humanity-type-disasters, while hopefully preventing this one from spreading as well. I’ll bet there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of similar sites throughout the world, and each of them imo, constitutes a crime.
    Here’s the situation as I see it: as per usual, crimes are all about money. Except for the occasional earthquake induced-type-disaster, almost all of these crimes (including most so called ‘accidents’) are preventable. As in–we know better, and for higher profit margins, we choose to pollute, or to at least chance it. The people deciding are to blame.
    I suggest that until the penalties for polluting far exceed the rewards for not, and/or people who make these decisions are penalized/punished/imprisoned (or harsher) for what they’ve done–I see little change for the better, and the pollution will continue to grow.
    It is equivalent to the corporate raping of the Pachamama (and of us all) and it needs to stop before killing humanity.
    Or not…
    Thanks again for a good read,,,

  2. GB

    I think this is the place that is referred to as “the volcano” by locals in Anaco. I’ve never been there, but am curious to see it.

  3. Kaleb Oil

    [setty say: this came through from a spambot. i deleted their link, because it’s much better without] Massaging a few drops of this oil into the hair just after shampooing and conditioning will guarantee an enhanced result…

  4. Kepler

    Thanks for the post, great reporting.

    Still, I am very very cautious. Yucatán had been under very heavy use for decades now. That is not the case of the Puinare area. So comparing the current situation now with the situation in Yucatán may not be the best comparison.
    Things don’t collapse overnight unless there is a big spill.
    Unfortunately, I doubt we have serious studies of water quality in Puinare across the years
    If you go to Maracaibo Lake you will see it is a disaster now.
    Also: at least a couple of years ago you could see many oil fields where PDVSA was just burning the gas coming out as by-product in the air.
    Not good, I think.

  5. Steve

    I think I remember the “Anaco Volcano”. (This isn’t it). It was a raised area that had a lagoon of mud at the top, and huge bubbles of natural gas bubbling up in the middle. The first time I was it was in the late 1970’s. they also called it “Mt. Aikens” or “Aikens Mound”, after the engineer who had been in charge of the well.

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