September 2010

RickPageWelcome to the first Bulletin issue of the Corpus Christi Geological Society’s 2010-11 season. I want to thank last year’s president, Juan Cabasos, for his able stewardship of our great Society. He has handed off to me a healthy and active organization and I pledge to do my best to keep it that way.

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Your officers and chairpersons have been very busy this summer preparing for another fun, interesting, and educational year. Don’t miss our annual Kickoff event at the BBQ Man Cantina September 9th from 5:30 to 8:00 PM, once again generously supported by CGG Veritas. See the announcement in this Bulletin and RSVP to Beth Priday, this season’s arrangements chairperson. Bob Critchlow and Bill Maxwell are busy screening interesting articles to publish. Check out this month’s article on the lower Cretaceous Sligo, a trend familiar (and confounding) to many of us. Bob has also started a new feature called “Life in the Patch” which I think you’ll find very entertaining. Consider contributing a story from your own experiences. Sarah Miller, advertising chair, has established a plan for placing digital ads on our web page. Contact her and be one of the first advertisers on our website (www.ccgeo.org – which is, incidentally, one of the best websites representing a smaller geologic society I’ve ever seen).

You should have by now received the annual dues renewal statement. Due to increased printing and mailing costs we have found it necessary to institute a $10/yr fee for mailed Bulletins. As always, a digital version of the Bulletin, in color, is available for free download online at our website. Please renew your membership promptly so that your Society may continue to offer the valuable services it now provides.

Summer Recap

Just because the monthly technical luncheons and Bulletins take a break over the summer doesn’t mean the rest of the CCGS does. Among the activities to report, academic liaison chairperson Owen Hopkins and member Eddie Hrncir presided over the donation of “Bones in Schools” murals, posters, the associated activity books and display fossils to quite a few organizations. Included was the 2-day Texas Council of Teachers of Mathematics and Science conference attended by 55 local teachers held at TAMUCC in June. Dan Pedrotti, co-chair academic liaison committee, reports that our professionallyprepared teaching curricula for the “Bones” program is nearly complete. We can now better ‘teach the teachers’ about the last ice age in south Texas. On July 24th the Texas State Aquarium hosted the firstTexas Coastal Expo, a daylong event sponsored by the General Land Office. Alan Costello, assisted by his wife Katie and Sarah Paige, manned a CCGS booth that promoted our primary school educational initiatives. They report turnout was high, interest was strong, and many “South Texas Ice Age” posters and activity books were sold. Lastly, the first CCGS Saltwater Fishing Tournament was held August 6th. Chairman Ed Egger assembled a great planning and operations team that included Ryan Egger, Leighton Devine, Patrick McCullough, Jeff Osborn, Paul Hatridge, Becky Egger, David Hammer, and Pete Graham. It was a great success! See the article and photos in this issue. The numbers are still coming in, but Leighton tells me this event has generated at least $5000 for the CCGS Scholarship Trust Fund! If you missed it this year, be sure to set aside time next year. The event team is already making plans for it!

Commentary

Now if you will allow me the opportunity to editorialize…. The oil and gas industry news that has dominated the media this summer has, of course, been the blowout of BP’s Macondo #1 deepwater oil well, drilled by Transocean’s doomed Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Over the course of this nearly 4 month saga I have frequently observed a lack of perspective when the subject is discussed, particularly within the mainstream media. I suppose that’s not too surprising as nothing sells papers and airtime like a disaster. And now that television news commentary (e g. Fox, MSNBC, CNN) is often posing as news reporting, it’s often hard to get the correct factual background to a story from those sources. And it certainly doesn’t help when the administration’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, publically claims that no politician should ever let a good crisis go to waste. What’s the general public to think?

So here’s my perspective on some aspects of this tragic event: overall the U.S. offshore drilling industry has an enviable safety record during its 73 year history. One has to go back over 40 years to the Santa Barbara blowout to find the previous significant offshore well failure in U.S. waters. No other heavy industry can claim a record like that: not the airlines, shipping, construction, mining, manufacturing, refining, or petrochemical, to name a few. However, a lack of perspective, in my opinion, resulted in an immediate moratorium on offshore drilling. Can you imagine our country’s economy if every time we suffered a devastating train derailment, plane crash, ship disaster, or mine collapse, we shut down the bulk of those industries nationwide?

As a nation we should always strive for a contamination-free Gulf. A blowout like this harms our marine ecosystems in the short-term, and may have the potential to cause permanent damage to the environment, although that aspect has not been effectively studied. The immediate impact ripples through the human community as it affects all whose livelihoods depend on healthy marine ecosystems. I believe all efforts to remove or disperse the spilled oil has been justified. Contamination of the Gulf is simply not good, for anyone, ever.

However, unwarranted hyperbole is also not good. President Obama declared that this is “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced”. Few in the mainstream media disagreed with him. And yet follow-up observations of past spills, including Santa Barbara, seem to indicate few long-term ramifications. Venerable Time magazine, no stranger to journalistic spin themselves, recently questioned the grave damage predictions of the BP blowout in their Viewpoint section1. Reasons for this include the enormous area of the Gulf, its warm temperatures and active currents, and a pre-existing hydrocarbon-munching microbial community that has evolved over the ages, consuming the estimated 1 million barrels of crude that enters the Gulf each year via natural seeps2. A summary article from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies regarding PEMEX’s 1979 Ixtoc #1 oil well blowout referenced the few available studies, and concluded that after severe, short-term, localized impacts the marine community rebounded “robustly”3. The article quotes Jeff Short, Pacific Science Director for the environmental group Oceana, who predicts that in 5 to 10 years the northern Gulf ecosystems will be indistinguishable from pre Macondo blowout conditions. The article also quotes local researcher Wes Tunnel of the Texas A&M Corpus Christi, Harte Marine Research Institute. Wes points out the need to fund follow up research on the long-term effects of this spill, and with BP recently agreeing to put $20 billion into a trust fund for recovery, maybe some financing will be available to conduct this kind of research. Wes in fact did much of the early reconnaissance work following the Ixtoc spill, and has just returned from Campeche looking for evidence of the spill and its effects 31 years later. Check out his observations and the rest of the Harte Institute’s work on oil spill research, at their website,http://www.harteresearchinstitute.org.

Let’s keep this disaster in perspective: in recent decades the Gulf annually develops a growing hypoxia region (the “dead zone”) due to phosphate and nitrate rich Mississippi River output generated primarily by fertilizer runoff. This year it’s the size of Massachusetts. As bad as the BP oil spill is, it remains a one-time event, while the dead zone is recurrent and growing each year. If one wants to sound the trumpet for improving the quality of our Gulf, here is a subject that most assuredly has long-term implications. However, I fear the Rahm Emmanuel types in the administration want to use the oil spill disaster as a lightening rod to pass misbegotten legislation like ‘Cap and Trade’ or repeal of ‘intangible drilling cost expensing’.

Regardless how the blame for the blowout is finally distributed, it’s clear to me, based on publically available information, that a series of critical blunders were made in the completion of this well. This blowout simply should not have happened, and it is fair and reasonable to make the negligent parties pay. Perhaps the lesson learned here is the deepwater exploration and drilling industry needs to create a consortium in order to conduct research into designing the tools and technologies necessary to cap and/or minimize an uncontrolled deepwater well, and put in place a quick-response containment service. Sort of a “Boots and Coots” in the deepwater. Toward that end Chris John, president of the Louisiana Midcontinent Oil and Gas Assoc. reports that 4 offshore operators have jointly committed $1 billion to build and deploy containment systems to anywhere in the Gulf, with 24 hours notice4. These containment systems will have the capability to work in up to 10,000′ of water, and collect oil and gas at rates up to 100,000 Bbls/day. He also reports that immediately following the blowout, the offshore drilling industry formed task forces to study offshore equipment, operational practices, spills, and well control issues. Their conclusions were submitted to the Dept. of the Interior and many are now incorporated into new well and BOP designs required of all offshore operators.

The other lesson I see here is that more than ever we as a nation need an educated public in order to maintain proper perspective, especially when it’s sometimes hard to find in the mainstream media. We all need to press our schools to keep well-rounded science curricula, including earth science. And we also need to take personal opportunities to inform those around us of the technical and political issues of our business (more on this next month). I believe that in our own small way, the various educational initiatives of your CCGS helps move our community and our nation in that direction.

See you at the Kickoff!

Rick Paige
CCGS President, 2010-11
1 Grunwald, Michael; “The BP spill: has the damage been exaggerated?”, Time magazine – Viewpoint, 7/29/10.
2 Kvenvolden and Cooper; “Natural seepage of crude oil into the marine environment”, Geo-Marine Letters, 2003, pg140-146.
3 McQuaid, John; “Past disasters offer lessons on legacy of deepwater spill”, Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 8/9/10.
4 John, Chris; “Oil industry is dedicated to safety”; Op Ed contribution, The Times-Picayune, 8/7/10.

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