Sometimes you have to notice the silences. Where has Dr. Steve Koonin, Under Secretary for Science at the US Department of Energy, been since the Gulf disaster happened?
Koonin was intimately acquainted with the very technologies that have failed so spectacularly on the Deepwater Horizon rig in his former job as BP’s chief scientist. While his current employer, Barack Obama is trying to figure out 'whose ass to kick’ over the spill, he might find it instructive to zip back to a presentation by Koonin at MIT in 2005, in which we see Koonin-as-oilman boasting of his company’s technological prowess in taking oil exploration and production into the ultra deep waters of the gulf.
In particular, he says that $50 million to bore a hole in the gulf’s seabed will yield a million barrels a day, describing the technical challenges of depth and pressure. A small note on the bottom of his slide reads ‘marine environment creates integrity challenges’ - engineering-speak for ‘accidents likely’.
Did senior management at BP such as Koonin know that they were pushing the bounds of environmental safety in deploying these ultra-deep water-drilling technologies? Of course they did. But as Koonin’s MIT presentation makes clear, stretching technological boundaries into risky areas is how BP navigates in an era of peak oil. Koonin’s much lauded role at BP was precisely to apply cutting-edge science to the problem of declining oil reserves and growing climate crisis. Koonin led a team of researchers that would allow for the more economical extraction of hard-to-get oil (e.g. tar sands, deep water drilling).
More significantly, Koonin took a central role in sinking millions of dollars of investment by BP into the new field of extreme genetic engineering known as synthetic biology, where entrepreneurs are building the DNA of entirely novel microbes from scratch in order convert sugar plantations, corn fields and forests into biofuels to keep the car economy gassed up.
It was under Koonin’s tenure at BP that the oil giant invested an undisclosed sum into Craig Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc to develop microbes that could be injected into coal seams and tar sands to release methane. Such methanogenic bacteria exists naturally in parts of the Earth’s crust but the ecological implications of artificially injecting super powerful methane-creating bugs and the potential for an accidental release of powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere has yet to be studied. Of course BP would counter that their experimental technology would not escape, just like hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil was not expected to gush out of the seabed.
Just over a month ago, Venter announced the ‘birth’ of Synthia, the first artificial self-reproducing organism, thereby stimulating further investment in the controversial field and attracting many calls for more regulation and oversight of these new technologies. If we have learnt one thing out of the BP-Halliburton-Transocean disaster it is this: do not trust those who are profiting from the use of a technology with its safety.
And then there is geo-engineering –the biggest technological gamble of all --which Koonin and BP see as a viable backup plan. Geoengineering refers to seemingly outlandish large-scale schemes to re-engineer atmospheric and ocean systems in order to counteract global warming. Like the massive, improbable-sounding concrete caps, nuclear options and ‘top kill’ plans now being played out on the deepwater horizon well head, such schemes have a boyish sci-fi feel to them – dumping iron in the ocean to prompt plankton blooms that would gobble up C02 or whitening clouds to reflect sunlight back to space.
A Plan B for the world
In 2008 David Eyton, BP VP for science and technology announced that a new area of investigation for BP was indeed geo-engineering. ‘We cannot ignore the scale of the challenge,’ he wrote ,‘and we all need to have a plan B if the world is unable to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations and the worst of climate change predictions are realized.’
BP’s preferred option is a proposal to shoot sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effect of a volcanic plume. In the case of a large volcanic eruption (such as Pinatubo in 1991) such particles reflect sunlight back to space and significantly reduce the Earth’s temperature.
Steve Koonin convened a fraternity of a dozen scientists for a week last year in order to look in detail at the technical research agenda of short-wave climate engineering, through the use of stratospheric aerosols. The study was the first to be sponsored by NOVIM, an outfit that claims to ‘provide clear scientific options to the most urgent problems… without advocacy or agenda’.
The report outlines a decade-long research programme that begins with computers in the lab, and then moves to field experiments to ‘monitored deployment’. The specific goal of the report is to devise a research agenda that will ‘diminish risk and uncertainty’.
Of course, what constitutes an acceptable risk when referring to the Earth’s complex, fragile and already out-of-whack climatic systems should be a political, not a mere technical, question. Oil executives and fishermen are unlikely to respond in the same way. Governments and peoples from the Northern and Southern hemispheres are also likely to disagree. Women and men have also been shown to differ on attitudes to risk.
Just as the oil industry is eager to get on with the exploitation of hard-to-reach sources of black gold, an increasingly vocal and well-organised lobby of geoengineers is anxious to get on with testing a variety of climate intervention schemes. Underlying both is a thinly disguised hubris that the Gulf catastrophe should vividly awake us to. Both oil and geoengineering have strong connections in Washington, sometimes even in the same people. To state the obvious, big oil would certainly benefit if the atmosphere could be engineered to withstand higher concentrations of greenhouse gases.
A growing group of citizens are calling for a halt to such experimentation on planet Earth (see www.handsoffmotherearth.org) and the expanding thick black muck in the Gulf should remind us all to listen to them. It is too late to prevent this disaster; not too late to prevent others.
Jim Thomas is research programme manager at the ETC group
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