What If He's Right?
Just when America was celebrating the provisional end of BP's Macondo oil blowout, and getting back to important issues like Kim Kardashian's body-suit collection, along comes Matthew Simmons with a rather strange and alarming outcry on doings in the Gulf of Mexico that contradicts the mood of renewed festivity, as well as just about every shred of reportage from any media outlet, mainstream or otherwise.
Matt Simmons Houston-based company has been the leading investment bank to the US oil industry for a long time, financing exploration and drilling in places like the Gulf of Mexico. Simmons, 68, recently retired from day-to-day management of the company. For much of the decade he has been what may be described as a peak oil activist. His 2005 book, Twilight in the Desert, warned the public that Saudi Arabia's oil production had reached its limits and, more generally, that an oil-dependent world was entering a zone of serious trouble over its primary resource. He took this aggressive stance despite risking the ire of the people he did business with.
Matt Simmons is a sober individual and a very nice man (I've met him twice over the years), a button-downed corporate executive who's been around the oil business for forty years. His knowledge is deep and comprehensive. From the beginning of the BP Macondo blowout incident in April, he's taken the far out position that the well-bore is fatally compromised and that BP has been consistently lying about their operations to stop the flow of oil. Perhaps most radically, Simmons claims that an oil "gusher" is pouring into the Gulf some distance from the drilling site itself.
Last week, Simmons came on Dylan Ratigan's MSNBC financial show, but he did a longer interview over at the King World News website. (click here for Eric King's interview with Simmons). Simmons's current warning about the situation focuses on the gigantic "lake" of crude oil that is pooling under great pressure 4000 to 5000 feet down in the "basement" of the Gulf's waters. More particularly, he is concerned that a tropical storm will bring this oil up - as tropical storms and hurricanes usually do with deeper cold water - and with it clouds of methane gas that will move toward the Gulf shore and kill a lot of people. (I really don't know the science on this and welcome any reader to correct me, but I suppose that the oil "lake" deep under the Gulf waters contains a lot of methane gas dissolved at pressure, and that as the oil rises toward the ocean's surface, and lower pressures, the gas will bubble out of solution.)
Simmons makes two additional points that are pretty radical: he says that several states along the Gulf ought to begin systematic evacuations in counties along the shore now. From his experience in Houston with Hurricane Rita (2005), he says a last-minute evacuation is bound to be a disaster -- the highways jammed hopelessly, drivers ran out of gas, and then the gas stations ran out of gas. Based on where the nation's collective state-of-mind is these days, I can't imagine that any Gulf state governor or mayor will heed this warning and begin preparing an evacuation now. (The practical problems are obvious for householders but what if it really is a matter of life and death?)
Secondly, Simmons maintains - as he has from near the beginning of the blowout - that the US military should take over operations from BP and ought to set off a "small" nuclear device down in the well-bore to fuse the rock into glass and seal the site permanently. Simmons says, based on his experience growing up in Utah near the government's underground nuclear testing sites in neighboring Nevada, where scores of very large atomic bombs were set off for years with no measurable consequences above ground, that a small nuclear explosion down in the Macondo well is unlikely to have any effect above the undersea rock surface. I have no idea, personally if this is true.
Matt Simmons is taking a position so "out there" that even the radical peak oil website TheOilDrum.com won't comment on his remarks (at least not as of early Monday morning July 19). I don't know how to evaluate Simmons's contentions myself, except to say that I don't believe Simmons is a nut, or that he's lost his marbles. We also must suppose that someone in his position is able to talk with an awful lot of the best people in the oil industry. Simmons has put his reputation on the line. A lot of bystanders and commentators are treating him as a fool. Simmons himself is painfully aware of his lonely stance and seems, in his public appearances, to be a very regretful messenger.
In the past twenty-four hours, BP has reported some possible leaks coming out of the seabed some distance from the well-bore. Nobody has been able to confirm yet exactly what is happening down there. One other thing Simmons said is that BP should be barred from the media airwaves since, he says, they have lied consistently in order to cover up their criminal negligence and culpability. The company itself cannot be saved because the claims against it are much greater than the value of its assets - but the people running the company could be sent to jail, so the incentive to keep lying remains high.
Jesse at the Jesse's Café Américain website makes an excellent point that if Matt Simmons is correct, and it turns out that the US government has been played by BP, then remaining public trust in the competence and legitimacy of government could evaporate. This is not a happy thing to contemplate at a time when the state of the nation and its economy are so fragile. What follows could make the current political situation seem like little more than, well, than a tea party, compared to the politics-to-come.
Readers here at Clusterfuck Nation are probably well aware of my past declarations of being allergic to conspiracy theories and crazy ideas generally. I'm not really equipped to evaluate Matt Simmons's warnings about the exact nature of the Macondo blowout and what might happen in the months ahead. But I am confident, having met the guy and corresponded with him and read his books, that he is a straight shooter. I'm sure that he is sincere in proclaiming his extreme discomfort with the position he's taken. Listen and decide for yourselves. (Simmons interview with Eric King)
A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press.
For a complete list of books by James Howard Kunstler and purchase links, click here.