Dirty socks

Why moving past oil is the right path

Denver Post | 2015

Heard the one about the mess left behind when some unscrupulous soul illegally discarded 4,000 radioactive “oil filter socks” in Noonan, N.D.? These things are “tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process,” according to the Associated Press.

And I thought my three sons’ dirty gym socks were bad news.

Whatever the state of North Dakota has to pay for the proper cleanup and disposal of these things, assume it won’t be cheap, and chalk it up to just another bit of the hidden and not-so-hidden cost of oil and gas — beyond what we pay at the pump or meter.

Last March 24, we marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, when at least 11 million gallons of heavy crude insulted 1,300 miles of pristine shoreline along Prince William Sound. You can still find plenty of oily glurp in the area, despite Exxon’s claim that everything’s now hunky-dory.

As if to mark the anniversary, in Galveston Bay, Texas March 22, a tanker and a barge collided, resulting in a spill of 150,000 gallons or more of super-gunky marine fuel oil in the bay. Not only did the mess threaten tourist beaches, bird refuges and other wildlife areas, it also gummed up shipping traffic to the Baypoint oil refinery, the second-largest in the country.

Like beer and milk, oil is a substance that seems always to be straining at its container, yearning to be free. It spills willy-nilly in the oceans, lakes and rivers of the world on a regular basis, the result of poor navigation, bad communications, drunken captains or just plain carelessness. On land, the tankers’ partner in crime, the pipeline, is busily spewing oily muck in various locales: more than 20,000 barrels from the Tesoro pipeline in North Dakota in September, 2013; up to 7,000 barrels of heavy crude from the Exxon Mayflower pipeline in a suburban neighborhood in Arkansas in March, 2013.

Those are just some of the latest pipeline gaffes to pique the memory as we contemplate approval of the next phase of the gi-normous Keystone pipeline, which would straddle our nation from the Canadian border to the Gulf. Keystone would carry some of the nastiest stuff out there: chunky hydrocarbon stew intensively extracted from oil sands. And surely none of it will ever escape from the pipeline, right?

One need not be a scientist to understand that spilling and burning oil and gas (and coal) can’t possibly be good for people, the land, water and air. Even the most ardent champion of more drilling knows there’s a fair amount of risk that cannot be completely managed. Yes, I know the energy industry is creating more jobs in Colorado and around the country. I also know the technology for renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal is a long way from being able to replace all the stuff dug and sucked out of the ground and burnt.

So, yes, yay to oil and gas and all the jobs it brings and houses it heats and goods and people it transports. But don’t tell me we’re stuck with this forever, or that just because it’s relatively cheap and plentiful right now there isn’t something better around the corner.

It’s not easy. Oil and gas represent our most profitable industry, and they are happy to take just a chunk of those profits and divert it into misinformation campaigns, political contributions, lobbyists and whatever else it takes to maintain the status quo.

On the bright side, we are moving in the right direction, with fuel economy standards tightened up, great regulation of greenhouse gases and more R&D in renewables. We’re not going fast enough, in large part due to roadblocks deliberately placed by those who stand to profit most from the energy tech of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Next time you see the video of those oily birds, or the horrified resident and grim-faced rescue workers at the next spill location, remember these costs. And let’s be sure to let our elected representatives we still want energy sector jobs, but we’d like to seem them migrated from fossil fuels to something cleaner and safer.

And the sooner the better.

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