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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

A vortex of fire erupts at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico

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Take a good look at the intense power of the oil spill.

 

 

That's right. Setting a small patch of it ablaze was enough to create a vortex of fire—a tornado of flame that makes the ships fighting the slick look like toy boats.


Nor is that the only way this spill boggles in size. New estimates peg the spill at as much as 60,000 barrels a day, though some of that is a result of BP's semi-successful effort to cut the riser pipe and attach the so-called lower marine riser package to cap the well. That method now enables a system to recapture some 15,000 barrels a day but also exacerbated the leak—and it remains unclear whether the amount caught is more than the amount of oil added to the leak by cutting the riser pipe in the first place.


What is clear is that the oil spill is having an outsized environmental (dead sea cucumbers), economic (the end of much Gulf of Mexico fishing) and even political impact. President Obama characterized the spill as a "siege," saying, "we will fight this spill with everything we've got for as long as it takes," during an address from the Oval Office on June 15. Certainly, the vortex of fire looks like an act of war.


But we have only ourselves to blame for the spill. After all, it's our incessant demand for petroleum that drives oil companies like BP to ignore environmental and engineering safeguards in a rush to barrel black gold. "For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels," Obama noted. "And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.  Time and again, the path forward has been blocked—not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor."


Of course, Obama may have created his own political vortex by calling for such a "clean energy future." That may be the only way to really stop the circumstances that led to the Macondo well spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in the first place. But it is also the kind of initiative that doomed President Jimmy Carter and his famous cardigan—an early effort towards energy conservation—to just one term in office.


At least we're just lucky that the June 15 lightning strike that touched off a blaze on the good ship Discoverer Enterprise capturing some of the oil didn't cause it's own vortex of fire—again setting back efforts to stop the spill. In the end, that act of nature let another 15,000 barrels or so into the Gulf—just a small fraction of an oil spill that has become, as Obama said, "the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced."

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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