Much of the world is watching in horror as a growing blanket of oil spreads onto the pristine beaches and marshes of our Gulf Coast. One of the most serious threats to the environment in decades is putting great pressure on governments to ‘do something.’ But in their rush to respond, officials can ignore science and embrace dubious solutions.
Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is pressing for 45 miles of artificial berm, 300 feet wide at its base and rising six feet out of the Gulf, in an attempt to protect delta wetlands from the encroaching oil. President Barack Obama endorsed the plan in his speech on Tuesday.
But since the Louisiana berm will not be continuous, there is a strong likelihood that oil will flow in through the gaps, then possibly become trapped in wetlands as the berms block tidal ebb. The Interior Department suggests the costs for these berms are likely to be close to $500 million. Coastal geologists also suggest that the berms will not be effective and will erode with the first storm.
President Obama has suspended 33 ongoing deep-water drilling programs in the Gulf of Mexico for at least six months. Some are near completion. All of them are by operators with a long record of thousands of safe drilling programs, seeking oil we won’t have to import. Now those wells likely will be written off as dry holes, and the rigs moved to opportunities outside the United States.
These hasty responses remind me of the cancellation of 51 ongoing American nuclear-reactor builds after the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) partial core meltdown in reactor No. 2. Some of those new reactors were also near completion, resulting in billions of write-offs. There were no injuries at TMI and no release of dangerous radiation. Incidentally, the adjacent reactor (No. 1) at Three Mile Island has just set a record of nearly two years of continuous operation without incident, and it has been granted a 20-year license extension.
Those 51 additional nuclear reactors could now be producing low-cost carbon-free power like the 104 U.S. reactors that did go on line. Instead we need 51 more large, polluting, coal-fueled plants.
Reasoned judgment and action are needed when political pressures mount. Let’s hope we get it.
Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America and teacher of energy subjects for the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education. He is a member of the American Nuclear Society.