[Sometimes I run across original research, original analysis, or hard-to-get information that is exactly the kind of stuff I live for - well thought out, well written, well researched commentary, the kind that your media experts get by the pound but think is too much for you to understand. Mark Sumner is the author of "Gulf Geyser: A Quick Reference Sheet For Reporters", as well as the author of the nonfiction work "The Evolution of Everything" and several novels including "Devil's Tower." He has given me permission to publish his comments here. Enjoy]

Gulf Geyser: A Quick Reference Sheet For Reporters

Look, guys, I'm starting to worry about the environmental impact of this trash pile growing at my side -- the one made from shredded newspapers and crushed radios. It expands every time I hear impossibly silly and ill-prepared comments and questions in a story about the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf. Frankly, I might soon have to start measuring the size of the pile in states. The only way to reduce the flow may be for you to print this out (sorry trees) and keep it by your side when you're dealing with these issues. This will also help sustain the sanity of your audience and reduce our trade imbalance with Japan China whoever makes cheap radios these days.

It is possible to estimate how much oil is being lost into the Gulf.

The idea that it's impossible to make a good estimate of how much oil is pouring into the Gulf is straight up bullshit. Calculating the amount of oil is a simple matter of looking at the size of the openings and rate at which material is being ejected. Regular video footage of the flow sites would allow for highly accurate estimates of the loss. And BP has that video footage. They just aren't sharing enough to make good estmates. Why not? Because they are well aware that the rate of loss is much, much higher than the 5,000 barrels a day number that you keep repeating. The rate of flow was 5,000 BPD, but that was only a couple of days after the accident -- in other words, three weeks ago -- and the flow increased rapidly over the initial week. The current rate is somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 barrels a day, based on what's been seen at the surface. Which number is more accurate? I'd know if you'd get BP to release those videos instead of meekly accepting "we don't know" as an answer.

If no one will give you an estimate of the loss, they can't give you an estimate of the capture.

In the same interviews where you're reporting that there's no estimate of how much oil is being lost, you're willing to report that BP is capturing "50%" or even "up to 90%" of the oil with the 4" soda straw they jabbed into the pipe. Um, no. No, they're not. BP is capturing (if we accept their numbers) around 1,000 barrels a day. That's only 20% of what was being lost three weeks ago, and it's 3% (or less) of what's been flowing out for the last two weeks. But the more important part of this is why in holy hell would you accept this number from a company that just told you they couldn't make an estimate of the loss? Look, I just poured this bag of M & Ms on the floor. How many? I don't know. I'm not even going to look, but I think this one I just picked up is half of them -- though I won't let you check me. Don't be that stupid, it's the number one cause of radio smashage.

We don't get 30% of our oil from the Gulf. 

Gulf oil accounted for about one and a half million BPD last year. That's deep water, shallow water, old wells and those just brought on line. Sounds like a lot, huh? But the US consumed twenty million BPD. Gulf oil was less than 10% of our oil supply. Yes, it's around a 1/3 of our domestic oil supply, but our domestic number has been shrinking since 1970, and that's including pretty well the whole period of Gulf exploration. The idea that more drilling in the Gulf will have an impact on our oil imports is, what's that word again... yeah, bullshit. Please stop passively sitting there when someone tells you that expanded offshore drilling is needed to secure our oil supply, because it's simply not true. Our oil supply can't be secured because the majority comes from overseas, and it will stay that way as long as we need oil.

Shutting down deep water drilling, or even all offshore drilling, will have no immediate effect on the price of oil.

Not only is Gulf oil production only 10% of US consumption, that's production not drilling. It can take years for an area to go from exploration to producing wells. The impact of shutting down drilling on price of gas at the pump... hmm, let's see. Oil is $72 a barrel. Three weeks ago, when a blanket suspension of new drilling was announced oil was selling for over $80 a barrel. Looks like stopping drilling in the Gulf saved us $8 a barrel! No. The relationship between current drilling and the price of oil is neglible. Anyone telling you what oil would cost without offshore drilling is bullshitting you. Why not call them on it for once?
Not drilling in the Gulf would not result in $14 a gallon gasoline.
This is a Mitch McConnell special, one which so many programs seem happy to repeat without comment. The truth is (as we just saw) the immediate effect of decreased drilling on oil prices is unpredictable. The oil market has way, way, way too many variables for anyone to reach into their hat and predict the long term effects of any action. And for someone to give you an actual number, like $14 a gallon for gas, means that they have pulled this number completely out of their ass. Say, why not call them on it? For once.

Oil does not make electricity.

Oil is used for transportation. It doesn't compete with coal, or with wind, or with nuclear power. All those new windmills off the coast of MA are peachy, but they won't save one gallon of gas. If all the oil wells dried up today, it wouldn't affect the ability to run our iPads, or to air condition our homes into the subarctic, or listen to you blather. Oil is not electricity. Get it? I don't care if the person trying to add a rosy "we're building windmills!" into a conversation about oil is the president of BP or President Obama, the two things are unrelated. This disaster is not a reason we need to reevaluate our need for nuclear power, because nuclear power doesn't compete with oil. Coal, wind, solar, nukes = electricity. Oil = transportation. Get it? There's nothing at all wrong with adding more wind and solar to the mix, they just don't do a damn thing to decrease the need for oil. What would decrease that oil demand? More public transit, fewer long haul trucks and more trains, smaller cars that use less gas, and (finally) cars that get their go from electricity. When we have a significant number of the later on the roads, maybe oil and those other sources will actually overlap. Until then, stop talking about other sources of energy like they have anything to do with oil. Please. Special bonus nugget: the reason we don't make electricity from oil? Because oil is more expensive than coal or natural gas. This is also the reason that Iran wants nuclear plants. Asking Iran why they won't just burn their valuable export commodity to keep the lights on is like asking South Africa why it doesn't just build streets out of diamonds.

Your job is to find out these things.

You're not supposed to have on one person from the American Petroleum Institute and one guy who just wrote the "Why Green Energy Sucks Handbook" and repeat what they say. Your job is to learn the facts of the situation and relay them to the public. Adding someone from the American Wetlands Lovers Council to your conversation is not a substitute for doing some research. Believe it or not, there are facts. You're supposed to let your readers / listeners / viewers know the truth, not just smile and look back and forth like the referee at a ping pong tourney. Feel free to extend this tip to other situations.


Mark Sumner is the author of 32 novels, including one called "Devil's Tower" (and for the record, the book title and the screen name are from fond memories of visits to the national monument of that name. They do not show an inclination toward the "dark side."). He's a past winner of Writers of the Future, and has been nominated for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

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