Four Scenarios for the Next Energy Mega-Disaster 
By Michael T. Klare

On June 15th, in their testimony
before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the chief executives of
America’s leading oil companies argued that BP’s Deepwater Horizon
disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was an aberration — something that
would not have occurred with proper corporate oversight and will not
happen again once proper safeguards are put in place.  This is
fallacious, if not an outright lie.  The Deep Horizon explosion was the
inevitable result of a relentless effort to extract oil from ever
deeper and more hazardous locations.  In fact, as long as the industry
continues its relentless, reckless pursuit of “extreme energy”
— oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium obtained from geologically,
environmentally, and politically unsafe areas — more such calamities
are destined to occur.

At the onset of the modern industrial era, basic fuels were easy to
obtain from large, near-at-hand energy deposits in relatively safe and
friendly locations.  The rise of the automobile and the spread of
suburbia, for example, were made possible by the availability of cheap
and abundant oil from large reservoirs in California, Texas, and
Oklahoma, and from the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  But these
and equivalent deposits of coal, gas, and uranium have been depleted. 
This means the survival of our energy-centric civilization increasingly
relies on supplies obtained from risky locations — deep underground,
far at sea, north of the Arctic circle, in complex geological
formations, or in unsafe political environments.  That guarantees the
equivalent of two, three, four, or more Gulf-oil-spill-style disasters
in our energy future.

Back in 2005, the CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, put the situation
about as bluntly as an oil executive could. “One thing is clear,” he
said, “the era of easy oil is over.  Demand is soaring like never
before… At the same time, many of the world’s oil and gas fields are
maturing.  And new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places
where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and
even politically.”

O’Reilly promised then that his firm, like the other energy giants,
would do whatever it took to secure this “difficult energy” to satisfy
rising global demand.  And he proved a man of his word.  As a result,
BP, Chevron, Exxon, and the rest of the energy giants launched a drive
to obtain traditional fuels from hazardous locations, setting the stage
for the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and those sure to follow.  As long
as the industry stays on this course, rather than undertaking the
transition to an alternative energy future, more such catastrophes are
inevitable, no matter how sophisticated the technology or scrupulous
the oversight.

The only question is:  What will the next Deepwater Horizon disaster
look like (other than another Deepwater Horizon disaster)?  The choices
are many, but here are four possible scenarios for future Gulf-scale
energy calamities.  None of these is inevitable, but each has a
plausible basis in fact.

Scenario 1: Newfoundland — Hibernia Platform Destroyed by Iceberg

Approximately 190 miles off the coast of Newfoundland in what locals call “Iceberg Alley” sits the Hibernia oil platform,
the world’s largest offshore drilling facility.  Built at a cost of
some $5 billion, Hibernia consists of a 37,000-ton “topsides” facility
mounted on a 600,000-ton steel-and-concrete gravity base structure
(GBS) resting on the ocean floor, some 260 feet below the surface. 
This mammoth facility, normally manned by 185 crew members, produces
about 135,000 barrels of oil per day.  Four companies (ExxonMobil,
Chevron, Murphy Oil, and Statoil) plus the government of Canada
participate in the joint venture established to operate the platform.

The Hibernia platform is reinforced to withstand a direct impact by
one of the icebergs that regularly sail through this stretch of water,
located just a few hundred miles from where the Titanic infamously hit
an iceberg and sank in 1912.  Sixteen giant steel ribs protrude from
the GBS, positioned in such a way as to absorb the blow of an iceberg
and distribute it over the entire structure.  However, the GBS itself
is hollow, and contains a storage container for 1.3 million barrels of
crude oil — about five times the amount released in the 1989 Exxon
Valdez spill.

The owners of the Hibernia platform insist that the design will
withstand a blow from even the largest iceberg.  As global warming
advances and the Greenland glaciers melt, however, massive chunks of
ice will be sent floating into the North Atlantic on a path past
Hibernia.  Add increased storm activity (another effect of global
warming) to an increase in iceberg frequency and you have a formula for
overwhelming the Hibernia’s defenses.

Here’s the scenario:  It’s the stormy winter of 2018, not an
uncommon situation in the North Atlantic at that time of year.  Winds
exceed 80 miles per hour, visibility is zilch, and iceberg-spotter
planes are grounded.  Towering waves rise to heights of 50 feet or
more, leaving harbor-bound the giant tugs the Hibernia’s owners use to
nudge icebergs from the platform’s path.  Evacuation of the crew by
ship or helicopter is impossible.

Without warning, a gigantic, storm-propelled iceberg strikes the
Hibernia, rupturing the GBS and spilling more than one million barrels
of oil into rough waters.  The topside facility is severed from the
base structure and plunges into the ocean, killing all 185 crew
members.  Every connection to the undersea wells is ruptured, and
135,000 barrels of oil start flowing into the Atlantic every day
(approximately twice the amount now coming from the BP leak in the Gulf
of Mexico).  The area is impossible to reach by plane or ship in the
constant bad weather, meaning emergency repairs can’t be undertaken for
weeks — not until at least five million additional barrels of oil have
poured into the ocean.  As a result, one of the world’s most prolific
fishing grounds — the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and
Cape Cod — is thoroughly poisoned.

Does this sound extreme?  Think again.  On February 15, 1982, a giant drillship, the Ocean Ranger (the “Ocean Danger” to its habitués), was operating in the very spot Hibernia now occupies when it was struck
by 50-foot waves in a storm and sank, taking the lives of 84 crew
members.  Because no drilling was under way at the time, there were no
environmental consequences, but the loss of the Ocean Ranger
— a vessel very much like the Deepwater Horizon — should be a
reminder of just how vulnerable otherwise strong structures can be to
the North Atlantic’s winter fury.

Scenario 2: Nigeria — America’s Oil Quagmire

is now America’s fifth leading supplier of oil (after Canada, Mexico,
Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela).  Long worried about the possibility that
political turmoil in the Middle East might diminish the oil flow from
Saudi Arabia just as Mexico’s major fields were reaching a state of
depletion, American officials have worked hard to increase Nigerian
imports.  However, most of that country’s oil comes from the troubled
Niger Delta region, whose impoverished residents receive few benefits
but all of the environmental damage from the oil extraction there.  As
a result, they have taken up arms in a bid for a greater share of the
revenues the Nigerian government collects from the foreign energy
companies doing the drilling.  Leading this drive is the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), a ragtag guerrilla group that has demonstrated remarkable success in disrupting oil company operations.

U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) rates Nigeria’s innate oil-production
capacity at about 2.7 million barrels per day.  Thanks to insurgent
activity in the Delta, however, actual output has fallen significantly
below this.  “Since December 2005, Nigeria has experienced increased
pipeline vandalism, kidnappings, and militant takeovers of oil
facilities in the Niger Delta,” the department reported
in May 2009.  “[K]idnappings of oil workers for ransom are common and
security concerns have led some oil services firms to pull out of the

Washington views the insurgency as a threat to America’s “energy
security,” and so a reason for aiding the Nigerian military. 
“Disruption of supply from Nigeria would represent a major blow to U.S.
oil security,” the State Department noted in 2006.  In August 2009, on
a visit to Nigeria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised even more military aid for oil protection purposes.

Here, then, is scenario #2:  It’s 2013.  The Delta insurgency has
only grown, driving Nigeria’s oil output down to a third of its
capacity.  Global oil demand is substantially higher and rising, while
production slips everywhere.  Gasoline prices have reached $5 per
gallon in the U.S. with no end in sight, and the economy seems headed
toward yet another deep recession.

The barely functioning civilian government in Abuja, the capital, is
overthrown by a Muslim-dominated military junta that promises to impose
order and restore the oil flow in the Delta.  Some Christian elements
of the military promptly defect, joining MEND.  Oil facilities across
the country are suddenly under attack; oil pipelines are bombed, while
foreign oil workers are kidnapped or killed in record numbers.  The
foreign oil companies running the show begin to shut down operations. 
Global oil prices go through the roof. 

When a dozen American oil workers are executed and a like number
held hostage by a newly announced rebel group, the president addresses
the nation from the Oval Office, declares that U.S. energy security is
at risk, and sends 20,000 Marines and Army troops into the Delta to
join the Special Operations forces already there.  Major port
facilities are quickly secured, but the American expeditionary force
soon finds itself literally in an oil quagmire, an almost unimaginable landscape of oil spills
in which they find themselves fighting a set of interlocked
insurgencies that show no sign of fading.  Casualties rise as they
attempt to protect far-flung pipelines in an impenetrable swamp not
unlike the Mekong Delta of Vietnam War fame.

Sound implausible?  Consider this: in May 2008, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and the Joint Forces Command conducted
a crisis simulation at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle,
Pennsylvania, that involved precisely such a scenario, also set in
2013.  The simulation, “Unified Quest 2008,” was linked to the
formation of the U.S. Africa Command (Africom),
the new combat organization established by President Bush in February
2007 to oversee American military operations in Africa.  An oil-related
crisis in Nigeria, it was suggested, represented one of the more likely
scenarios for intervention by U.S. forces assigned to Africom. 
Although the exercise did not explicitly endorse a military move of
this sort, it left little doubt that such a response would be
Washington’s only practical choice.

Scenario 3: Brazil — Cyclone Hits “Pre-Salt” Oil Rigs

In November 2007, Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petróleo Brasileiro (Petrobras), announced a remarkable discovery:
in a tract of the South Atlantic some 180 miles off the coast of Rio de
Janeiro, it had found a giant oil reservoir buried beneath a mile and a
half of water and a thick layer of salt.  Called “pre-salt” oil because
of its unique geological positioning, the deposit was estimated to hold
8 to 12 billion barrels of oil, making this the biggest discovery in
the Western Hemisphere in 40 years.  Further test drilling by Petrobras
and its partners revealed that the initial find — at a field called
Tupi — was linked to other deepwater “pre-salt” reservoirs, bringing
the total offshore potential to 50 billion barrels or more.  (To put
that in perspective, Saudi Arabia is believed to possess reserves of
264 billion barrels and the United States, 30 billion.)

With this discovery, Brazil could “jump from an intermediate
producer to among the world’s largest producers,” said Dilma Rousseff,
chief cabinet official under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and
thought to be his most likely successor.  To ensure that the Brazilian
state exercises ultimate control over the development of these
reservoirs, President da Silva — “Lula,” as he is widely known — and
Rousseff have introduced legislation
in the Brazilian Congress giving Petrobras control over all new fields
in the basin.  In addition, Lula has proposed that profits from the
pre-salt fields be channeled into a new social fund to alleviate
poverty and underdevelopment in the country.  All this has given the
government a huge stake in the accelerated development of the pre-salt

Extracting oil a mile and half under the water and from beneath
two-and-a-half miles of shifting sand and salt will, however, require
the utilization of technology even more advanced than that employed on
the Deepwater Horizon.  In addition, the pre-salt fields are
interspersed with layers of high-pressure gas (as appears to have been
the case in the Gulf), increasing the risk of a blow-out.  Brazil does
not experience hurricanes as does the Gulf of Mexico, but in 2004, its
coastline was ravaged by a surprise subtropical cyclone
that achieved hurricane strength.  Some climatologists believe that
hurricane-like storms of this sort, once largely unknown in the South
Atlantic, will become more common as global warming only increases.

Which brings us to scenario #3: It’s 2020, by which time the
pre-salt area off Rio will be host to hundreds of deepwater drilling
rigs.  Imagine, then, a subtropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds
and massive waves that suddenly strikes this area, toppling dozens of
the rigs and damaging most of the others, wiping out in a matter of
hours an investment of over $200 billion.  Given a few days warning,
most of the crews of these platforms have been evacuated.  Freak winds,
however, down several helicopters, killing some 50 oil workers and
flight crew members.  Adding to the horror, attempts to seal so many
undersea wells at such depths fail, and oil in historically
unprecedented quantities begins gushing into the South Atlantic.  As
the cyclone grows to full strength, giant waves carry the oil
inexorably toward shore.

Since the storm-driven assault cannot be stopped, Rio de Janeiro’s
famous snow-white beaches are soon blanketed in a layer of sticky black
petroleum, and in a matter of weeks, parts of Brazil’s coastal waters
have become a “dead ocean.”  Clean-up efforts, when finally initiated,
prove exceedingly difficult and costly, adding immeasurably to the
financial burden of the Brazilian state, now saddled with a broken and
bankrupt Petrobras.  Meanwhile, the struggle to seal all the leaking
pre-salt wells in the deep Atlantic proves a Herculean task as, month
after month, oil continues to gush into the Atlantic.

Scenario 4: East China Sea — A Clash Over Subsea Gas

At one time, most wars between states were fought over disputed
borders or contested pieces of land.  Today, most boundaries are fixed
by international treaty and few wars are fought over territory.  But a
new type of conflict is arising: contests over disputed maritime
boundaries in areas that harbor valuable subsea resources, particularly
oil and natural gas deposits.  Such disputes have already occurred in
the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, the East and South China Seas, and
other circumscribed bodies of water.  In each case, the surrounding
states claim vast offshore tracts that overlap, producing — in a world
that may be increasingly starved for energy — potentially explosive

One of them is between China and Japan over their mutual boundary
in the East China Sea.  Under the United Nations Convention on the Law
of the Sea, which both countries have signed, each is allowed to
exercise control over an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) extending 200
nautical miles (about 230 standard miles) from its coastline.  But the
East China Sea is only about 360 miles across at its widest point
between the two countries.  You see the problem.

In addition, the U.N. convention allows mainland states to claim an
extended EEZ stretching to their outer continental shelf (OCS).  In
China’s case, that means nearly all the way to Japan — or so say the
Chinese.  Japan insists that the offshore boundary between the two
countries should fall midway between them, or about 180 miles from
either shore.  This means that there are now two competing boundaries
in the East China Sea.  As fate would have it, in the gray area between
them houses a promising natural gas field called Chunxiao by the
Chinese and Shirakaba by the Japanese.  Both countries claim that the
field lies within their EEZ, and is theirs alone to exploit.

For years, Chinese and Japanese officials have been meeting to resolve this dispute — to no avail.  In the meantime, each side has taken steps
to begin the exploitation of the undersea gas field.  China has
installed drilling rigs right up to the median line claimed by Japan as
the boundary between them and is now drilling for gas there; Japan has
conducted seismic surveys in the gray area between the two lines. 
China claims that Japan’s actions represent an illegal infringement;
Japan says that the Chinese rigs are sucking up gas from the Japanese
side of the median line, and so stealing their property.  Each side
sees this dispute through a highly nationalistic prism
and appears unwilling to back down.  Both sides have deployed military
forces in the contested area, seeking to demonstrate their resolve to
prevail in the dispute.

Here, then, is Scenario #4:  It’s 2022.  Successive attempts to
resolve the boundary dispute through negotiations have failed.  China
has installed a string of drilling platforms along the median line
claimed by Japan and, according to Japanese officials, has extended
undersea drill pipes deep into Japanese territory.  An
ultra-nationalistic, right-wing government has taken power in Japan,
vowing finally to assert control over Japanese sovereign territory. 
Japanese drill ships, accompanied by naval escorts and fighter planes,
are sent into the area claimed by China.  The Chinese respond with
their warships and order the Japanese to withdraw.  The two fleets
converge and begin to target each other with guns, missiles, and

At this point, the “fog of war” (in strategic theorist Carl von
Clausewitz’s famous phrase) takes over.  As a Chinese vessel steams
perilously close to a Japanese ship in an attempt to drive it off, the
captain of that vessel panics, and orders his crew to open fire; other
Japanese crews, disobeying orders from superior officers, do the same. 
Before long, a full-scale naval battle ensues, with several sunken
ships and hundreds of casualties.  Japanese aircraft then attack the
nearby Chinese drill rigs, producing hundreds of additional casualties
and yet another deep-sea environmental disaster.  At this point, with
both sides bringing in reinforcements and girding for full-scale war,
the U.S. president makes an emergency visit to the region in a
desperate effort to negotiate a cease-fire.

Such a scenario is hardly implausible.  Since September 2005, China
has deployed a naval squadron in the East China Sea, sending its ships
right up to the median line — a boundary that exists in Japanese
documents, but is not, of course, visible to the naked eye (and so can
be easily overstepped).  On one occasion,
Japanese naval aircraft flew close to a Chinese ship in what must have
seemed a menacing fashion, leading the crew to train its antiaircraft
guns on the approaching plane.  Fortunately, no shots were fired.  But
what would have happened if the Japanese plane had come a little bit
closer, or the Chinese captain was a bit more worried?  One of these
days, as those gas supplies become even more valuable and the
hair-trigger quality of the situation increases, the outcome may not be
so benign.

These are, of course, only a few examples of why, in a world ever
more reliant on energy supplies acquired from remote and hazardous
locations, BP-like catastrophes are sure to occur.  While none of these
specific calamities are guaranteed to happen, something like them
surely will — unless we take dramatic steps now to reduce our
dependence on fossil fuels and speed the transition to a post-carbon
world.  In such a world, most of our energy would come from renewable
wind, solar, and geothermal sources that are commonplace and don’t have
to be tracked down a mile or more under the water or in the icebound
north.  Such resources generally would not be linked to the sort of
disputed boundaries or borderlands that can produce future resource

Until then, prepare yourselves.  The disaster in the Gulf is no anomaly.  It’s an arrow pointing toward future nightmares. 

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet.  A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available
from the Media Education Foundation.  To catch him discussing our
dystopian energy future on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or to download it to your iPod, click here.

Copyright 2010 Michael T. Klare

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