Is 0.1% Armageddon risk worth extracting deep water oil?

In my previous post, I reported on a terribly scary story claiming the intense pressure unleashed by BP’s well may have so disturbed the fragile seabed that shields us from massive quantities of frozen methane deep under the Gulf that we may be headed toward a massive methane eruption that could wipe out humanity.

I’ve since read articles claiming to “debunk” this. But the U.S. government has told BP to delay its well head pressure test for 24 hours from fear the seabed is already cracked, which we already knew. If the well — which descends through one mile of water and 2 ½ miles of seafloor — is cracked below the seafloor, as it appears to be, then tightly covering the wellhead will greatly increase pressure on subsurface cracks, perhaps causing more damage and raising the danger of global catastrophe. This is why BP is drilling its two relief wells to intercept the original well near the bottom of the well.

Three things are clear from this episode:

  1. Greed drove BP to take totally unacceptable risks;
  2. We don’t know what we’re doing when we drill miles below the surface; and,
  3. An immense amount of dangerous — potentially humanity-destroying — frozen methane is trapped beneath The Gulf of Mexico

These facts point unambiguously to the need to cease drilling deep under the Gulf of Mexico.

President Obama drew this conclusion, but a court overturned his eminently sensible ban on new deepwater drilling:

President Obama’s moratorium on new deepwater oil wells, which a judge overturned and the administration now is appealing, has only stoked the debate.

Administration officials have argued the fact that we know so little about the deep ocean — and what exactly caused the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to catch fire on April 20 — means we have no business punching new holes in great depths of the ocean floor for at least six months until we figure out a safer way to do it.

Assuming we escape Armageddon, let’s hope our courts overrule themselves.

If deep water drilling has even a 0.1% chance of triggering global Armageddon, is it worth it? I would much rather live in a world with slightly slower economic growth than die because humanity’s ability to drill for oil exceeds its understanding of the risks involved.

Posted by James on Wednesday, July 14, 2010