Carbon Handprint

07/22/2010 10:43 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I write this sitting in a Boeing 757, jetting back from the Gulf to NYC. My name is Henry Fair, and I am powerless with petroleum. But I will try to do better.

The news is that BP has lowered a new, tight-fitting cap over the top of the failed blowout preventer that as of now is capturing all of the oil gushing from the well a mile below. It all happened with minimal fanfare, and only a cynic would ask why it had not been tried before as all of the Top Hats, Top Kills, Junk Shots, and Lower Marine Riser Packages were failing, as unknown amounts of oil gushed into the ocean (estimates upgraded almost daily.)

The worst, of course, is the dispersant, saving the bathers (and television viewers) from the frightening sight of crude on the beach while killing everything in the Gulf. One of my responses to the Gulf gusher is to hitchhike. Why burn gas to get from train station to home (a prosperous suburban area outside NYC)? Usually I have no problem, but last night at 10, my good neighbors paraded by in their SUVs, shaking their heads at this impetuous ruffian who would dare to demean their property values by exhibiting this bohemian behavior. Coughing in their exhaust plumes, I wondered how they could not see their complicity in the Gulf, but more amazingly, not see that when they accelerate away from this menacing hitchhiker that just wants a ride home, they are actually stepping on their children's throats.

Oil on the water can be so beautiful. One does wonder what is really happening. We have been told all along that the Macondo would be sealed and never tapped, but the economics of quarterlies would seem to trump the respect for the dead. We are told the Development Driller 3 is quite close to the original bore and will intercept it soon. Conflicting reports have stated that it will attempt to drill into the original bore and pump it full of concrete and drilling muds to close it. Or, that it will drill into the cavity, very close to the original bore, and attempt to shoot massive amounts of concrete and muds that would clog the original orifice. And what is the plan with DD2?

Meanwhile, on top of the BOP (blowout preventer, try to stay with me here) a flange was adroitly removed by deep-sea robots (the same ones that accidentally knocked off the LMRP last week), and the new device was lowered into place. Vents on the unit were kept open to prevent the formation of methane hydrate crystals (pesky little things that clogged up the failed Top Hat), and new vessels have been brought in to process the massive increase in captured hydro-carbons. An aside here (as if the dear reader did not have enough to worry about), a discussion with James Hansen, a climate scientist, raised the hairs on the back of my neck as I tried to comprehend his explanation of the looming danger therein. Methane is a very active greenhouse gas reagent, and there is a whole lot of it trapped in the ocean in the form of these crystals, which stay safely sequestered at the bottom, as long as the temperature in the deep stays constant. But as soon as it rises, the methane trapped there will be released, and not just a little bit, which will cause a sudden, catastrophic climate change impact. Let me reiterate that my understanding of Dr. Hansen's explanation was spotty, but there is an excellent discussion of the methane crystals here.

Back on the surface: The drill ship Discoverer Enterprise has been faithfully capturing its 15,000 barrels a day, and flaring the natural gas and methane captured, but now the Helix Producer has been brought in to help. Of course, while the poor engineers were futzing around with the new toy, no oil was being captured, so it is all (60,000 barrels a day, as at June 15 estimate) gushing out into the water and up to the surface. Fear not, 'A Whale' comes to the rescue (not the poor marine mammals that are dying in the muck.) Actually, it is a giant Taiwanese skimmer ship that the USA authorities reluctantly permitted to come gobble up the goo. (If you want to really be nauseated, read the article about how the Dutch offer to come in and totally resolve the problem from the beginning was rebuffed.)

Fascinating as all of these details might be, the bottom-line question remains: Will we as a nation continue in our gluttonous ways, and burn all the hydro-carbons we can get, leaving our children gasping as they head for the hills to escape the rising water, or will we be responsible citizens, and force our government to mandate an evolution to sustainable sources of power? Jon Stewart did a hilarious skit in which he replayed footage of every president in memory, parroting that we would develop sustainable energy and wean ourselves from imported oil within X years. If you didn't laugh, you cried.

Let's just do it.

First step, conserve. It's not so hard. Turn off the lights, take the bicycle when you can, buy a hybrid car, recycle those aluminum cans. It all makes a big difference.

Then make noise. Call your congressperson and tell them that we want wind, solar, waterwheels, whatever it takes. Let's leave a nice place for the kids. They will thank us.

See pictures from the Gulf spill here.

Though imperfect, science is arrayed to ferret the truth. In spite of the recent unpleasantness in the science world, it is not the scientists who are the problem. Don't shoot the messenger!