Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Over the Hump

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"My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?" Captain George Pollard, Jr demanded. "We have been stove by a whale," answered first mate Owen Chase. And so on November 20, 1820 while the whaling ship Essex was sailing almost 3,000 miles west of South America the 28-year old captain struggled to comprehend the beginning of what was to unfold as one of the most gruesome whaling tragedies.

A huge whale, as long as the ship itself had charged and rammed the ship broadside with its massive head. It then gathered its strength, snapped its jaws with a force that could be heard for miles, took off swimming ahead of the ship, turned around and came straight at the Essex crushing the bow before swimming off. Predators quickly became prey as the crew narrowly escaped the rapidly sinking ship wreck in three small craft.

While attempting to sail east against the trade winds toward South America, the sailors exhausted their supplies and became overcome with hunger. On February 8, crewmember Isaac Cole died in horrible convulsions. Owen Chase suggested the body be kept for food. The men agreed, separated the limbs from his body, cut all the flesh from the bones, and eagerly devoured their dead crewmember’s heart.

Men continued to die and were eaten to sustain the remaining crew. In captain Pollard’s boat only four desperate men remained alive. "Let’s exchange lots and see who will be the one to sacrifice themselves so the others might live," one of the boys suggested. They did, and Owen Coffin, Pollard’s young cousin drew the fatal lot. Pollard asked, "My boy, if you don’t want to do this, I’ll kill the first one that touches you." The suffering Quaker boy replied "No, I like my lot as well as any other." They drew lots again to see who would kill him. That gruesome chore went to Charles Ramsdel who shot his friend, and they consumed him.

George Pollard and Charles Ramsdel were finally rescued on February 23rd, 1821 when a Nantucket whaleship, the Dauphin, came beside them off the Chilean coast. In total, eight survived and twelve perished during the long ordeal.

But the Essex tragedy was only the most heart-wrenching event in the inevitable collapse of the whaling industry. Other whaling disasters followed. In August 1851 the whale ship Ann Alexander was also rammed by a whale while sailing the Pacific. In 1871 an early winter trapped 32 whaling ships in the arctic ice. Although the crews were saved, all of the ships were lost while hunting whale oil in the arctic.

While these disasters highlighted the risks faced by whalers, it was the depletion of the world’s whaling population rather than these shipwrecks that led to whaling’s eventual decline. In the early 1630s three or four whales would come ashore on Cape Cod every year and their blubber was readily harvested and boiled down into oil. Whaling was easy, but the supply of beached whales was quite limited. To increase the supply sailors ventured short distances off shore to harvest whales approaching the beach. When this supply was exhausted they ventured farther and farther out to sea. Eventually voyages, like that of the Essex, lasting several years and traveling thousands of miles into the Pacific were required to reach the remaining herds. The diminishing stock of whales continued to test the limits of the whaling technology. In 1853 The "Golden Age" of American whaling reached its peak. In the industry’s most profitable year, sales of whale products totaled $11 million. Whales were being killed much faster than they could breed. It was inevitable that the whaling industry would collapse because of the fundamental problem created by its own success. According to one of the best estimates approximately 250,000 sperm whales were taken during the bulk of the golden age. The costs of harvesting the few remaining whales began to exceed the revenue they could provide. Scarce whales made for scarce profits.

In 1859 Colonel Edwin Drake drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania and began to extract an abundant supply of petroleum from his 75-foot deep well. This was converted into kerosene and provided an inexpensive alternative to whale oil. This new technology ensured the steady decline of whaling.

Declining supplies of whales pushed technology to the limit. These difficult and dangerous technologies led to disastrous accidents. Depletion of the whale population increased costs and decreased profits. Eventually, alterative energy supplies displaced whale oil.

"We’re gonna burn up or we’re gonna jump" Mike Williams, chief electronics technician aboard the drilling platform made his decision and jumped 10 stories into the oil-covered waters burning below. And so on April 20, 2010 in mile-deep water more than 40 miles off the Louisiana coast the explosion that caused the Deepwater Horizon to burn and sink killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, and began what was to unfold as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

After finally drilling through 13,000 feet of sea bed below 5,000 feet of water this deepest underwater oil well still needed to be secured. Casing and centralizers were being installed, drilling mud was pumped, and cement was set before production could begin. The Macondo Prospect project was significantly behind schedule and over budget. Shortcuts were taken, the well blew out, and 50,000 barrels of oil began gushing into the sea each day. After about 5 million barrels had leaked, the flow was finally stopped on July 15.

During the spill oil spread over thousands of square miles, deep water oil plumes as large as 22 miles long formed, and oil as thick as 2 inches appeared on the seafloor mud. Nearly 100 miles of containment booms were deployed in attempts to protect sensitive beaches and wetlands, sand berms were constructed, more than 1.7 million gallons of toxic chemical dispersant was applied, and about 314,000 barrels of oil was burned at the surface. Eight U.S. national parks are threatened. More than 400 species that live in the Gulf islands and marshlands are at risk. As of August 13, 4,678 dead animals had been collected. As of June 21, 2010, the area closed to fishing encompassed 86,985 square miles. Initial cost estimates to the fishing industry were $2.5 billion. The U.S. Travel Association estimated that the economic impact of the oil spill on tourism across the Gulf Coast over a three-year period could exceed approximately $23 billion, in a region that supports over 400,000 travel industry jobs generating $34 billion in revenue annually. On June 16, BP executives agreed to create a $20 billion spill response fund now being administered by Kenneth Feinberg.

While disasters highlight the risks of extracting petroleum, it is depletion of the world’s petroleum reserves that will lead to petroleum’s eventual decline. In 1956 Shell research scientist M. King Hubbert presented a paper at a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute. The paper described a detailed theory predicting that overall petroleum production in the United States would peak between the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The overall concept is rather simple, oil is being extracted quickly but it regenerates only very slowly. Inevitably the supply will dwindle, advancing technology will not be able to discover and extract the few remaining reserves, and overall production will diminish. Despite the sharp criticism he originally received, Hubbert became famous when his prediction proved correct in 1970. His work is the basis for peak oil theory. The world-wide analysis is difficult—it depends on the rate of discovery of new deposits, the rate of improvement in drilling technologies, and on oil prices which affect the rate of extraction and the rate of consumption. However, many estimates show that we are already past the peak of global oil production and the decline is underway.

Bill Gates is investing in traveling wave nuclear reactor research, the installed capacity of wind power in the United States is now over 35,000 megawatts, Google acquired a 37.5 percent stake in the Atlantic Wind Connection project, fuel cells inside the innovative Bloom Energy Servers have been powering Google’s headquarters since July 2008, and photovoltaic solar electricity production in the United States reached 14.73 billion watts in 2008.

Declining supplies of petroleum oil is pushing technology to the limit. These difficult and dangerous technologies lead to disastrous accidents. Depletion of petroleum is leading to increased total costs and decreased profits. Alterative energy sources are now displacing petroleum oil.

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