The 'Eye of Fire' in the Gulf and a path forward away from fossil fuels

The 'Eye of Fire' in the Gulf and a path forward away from fossil fuels
© Screenshot courtesy of Twitter/@MLopezSanMartin

A leak in an underwater pipeline released an unknown quantity of natural gas into the southern Gulf of Mexico on July 2. In a heavy storm, lightning ignited the gas at the water surface, creating an “Eye of Fire” that was caught on a viral video. It has not yet been revealed how or when it began and what types of hydrocarbons were released, but this is only one of a long series of gas leaks and oil spills.

You don’t need to look as far back as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to find more examples, when there have been an average of 17.4 spills of oil and other chemicals accidentally released from oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico in each of the last five years. Although it has largely remained outside of the public view, the Taylor oil spill off the coast of Louisiana has been ongoing since 2004 and is on track to become the largest accidental oil spill in our history.

It is apparent that the ultimate cause of these accidents is our thirst for unlimited fossil fuels. This demand for energy is not limited to the few who profit from this industry or the many who work in it, but rather comes from every one of us. Our modern society has been built on fossil fuels over the past 150 years and you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of people on Earth who do not rely on oil and gas in their everyday existence.

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This Eye of Fire should not be used to look for the evil mastermind behind the plot to destroy our planet, it should be used to search for and illuminate the path forward for our society as a whole. There will be no gain achieved by tearing down one of the major drivers of our global economy, but there is plenty to be gained by using this collective knowledge and years of investment in a new economy based on renewable energy sources.

Already, all of the major oil and gas companies are turning to renewable energy sources to look for new opportunities. To ensure that the gains of these new industries are more equitably shared, we need also to ease the transition the oil and gas workforce to the new economy. The best way to achieve this is to view the existing infrastructure through a new lens. The Eye of Fire resulted from an accident in the offshore oil and gas industry, and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is looking to offshore wind to replace some of this energy supply. Rather than starting over, much of the existing offshore infrastructure, including both built and human resources, should be re-envisioned to accelerate this transition and maintain employment opportunities for the hundreds-of-thousands of people in the offshore industry.

We should also look to the future uses of the offshore physical infrastructure. There are over 3,000 oil and gas structures currently standing in the Gulf of Mexico. These structures generate their own energy, house dozens of employees, monitor the ocean conditions around them and provide a conduit to seafloor installations that access hydrocarbon reservoirs far below the ocean floor. It is not difficult to see a future where these platforms generate renewable energy, house dozens of employees and visiting researchers, continue to monitor the ocean and provide a conduit to store captured carbon in reservoirs far below the ocean floor. The machinery that helped to cause the current climate crisis can be used to help solve the problem.

Our view of the changes in our coupled global ocean-atmosphere system, as well as our ability to witness the accidents that come with offshore drilling has come from a robust capacity for scientific observation. Progressing from ships measuring currents with literal knots, reversing thermometers, wind vanes and tide gauges to satellite-based remote sensing and cabled observatories, scientists have tracked the suite of steady changes that have altered our relationship with the oceans. The present-day lens through which we view our oceans has come from significant investments in technological innovation from the National Science Foundation and other agencies. The focus in the last few decades on big data, networked sensors, autonomous vehicles and telepresence has brought us far in terms of our understanding of the marine environment. Yet, we have still only mapped 20 percent of the ocean floor, with most of the data coming in the last few years including mapping 4 percent of the world’s ocean in the last year alone. The remarkable view of our global ocean that has been provided is essential to our sustainable development of the Blue Economy.

The Eye of Fire has once again turned the public eye toward both the risks and the opportunities that reside offshore. We should not lose sight of the scientific investments and innovations that have allowed us to see the Eye and the other more pernicious changes to our global environment, nor should we fail to see the potential in the existing structures and human resources that lie offshore. A more equitable and environmentally responsible energy system will be revealed if we can look past our differences to observe the shared benefits of the future Blue Economy.

Erik Cordes, Ph.D. is a professor and vice chair of biology at Temple University in Philadelphia and the founder and co-lead of the Offshore Energy Working Group of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative. He has worked on the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico for over 20 years, including the damage assessment following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow him on Twitter: @CordesLab.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to correct average spills of oil and other chemicals.