This column appeared as the editor's letter in the July 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine.
All of the problems in the Gulf of Mexico have me thinking about the Ohio River. And bridges. Again.
What happens when your thirst for oil compels you to go nearly a mile beneath the surface of the sea to start drilling for crude? You eventually get trouble, as we’re learning with the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion — and huge negative environmental consequences, as we’re only beginning to figure out.
And what happens when your thirst to facilitate more and more fossil-fuel-burning cars and trucks has you sinking $4.1 billion (and presumably more as costs mount) into a new bridge and a massive interchange rebuild near the downtown waterfront, plus a second bridge in the east county? We’ll eventually get consequences here too, I believe. So I’ve been examining the threads that might tie these two disasters together.
The BPs of the world have developed marvelous extraction technologies capable of drilling into the earth’s surface in water more than 1,000 feet deep; Shell, it’s worth noting, poked through the gulf’s floor at 9,000 feet a couple of years ago. At present, 80 percent of the oil collected out of the Gulf of Mexico is sucked from wells at sub-1,000-foot depths. (These deep-water Gulf wells account for about 25 percent of total U.S. oil production, according to Newsweek.) But spring a leak down there on the cold, dark bottom and the oil company’s attempts to stanch the flow of crude into pristine waters look like seventh-grade science fair projects. “Containment domes,” heavy “mud,” golf balls and tire shreds? How about a big cork stopper?
During the Deepwater Horizon disaster, many of us have woken up with a new hangover from our fossil fuel addiction. Putting aside global warming for a second (although we really shouldn’t), we can be freshly outraged at the consequences of our energy habits. The destruction that oil-filled waters will wreak on the beaches and estuaries in the gulf is heartrending. There’s also growing concern that plumes of oil are spreading along ocean currents in deeper water, possibly bringing oxygen deprivation and toxic effects to sea life at great distances from the exploded rig. Researchers are worried that organisms in the gulf’s food chain — from tiny photoplankton to top-tier predators like bluefin tuna — will be affected in catastrophic ways.
All of this aftermath begs the question: How much should we sacrifice in our quest for more oil? Already some experts are noting that, as we’ve exhausted easily accessible stores of this resource, we’re beginning to face increasing environmental risks with two of our main future petroleum sources: off-shore drilling and an emissions-heavy tar sand technique under way in Alberta, Canada. We’ve entered the “tough oil” era, and more nest-fouling episodes could well follow.
From here, my mind makes the leap to the Ohio River bridges and plans for an enlarged Spaghetti Junction. How much, I wonder, should we sacrifice in our quest for easier, faster and, one would assume, more automobile and truck traffic through our city? It’s not just the (gulp) $4.1 billion. Or the possibility that we may be forced to extract tolls from drivers on already existing bridges, as well as the new ones, to have a chance to pay for the work.
My question goes beyond the disruptions to commuters, residents and businesses in the path of construction — even beyond what all of this concrete and steel will do to the “livability” quotient of our small town, big city.
It’s even more basic: If we build it, will they come? The Ohio River Bridges Project  currently projects a completion date for all work of 2024. Has anyone asked how people and products will be transported in 14 years? Will we still be sucking oil from hard-to-reach deposits and filling a tank for nearly everyone who qualifies for a driver’s license? Will there be a clean-energy solution that keeps as many cars on the road? And if we manage to preserve our one-person-per-car culture with battery- or otherwise-powered vehicles, what about all of the trucks that haul through our town on east-west and north-south interstates and contribute mightily to the congestion?
I have difficulty envisioning new fleets of 18-wheelers powered by something other than petroleum. So perhaps does Warren Buffett, who last year ponied up $26 billion to purchase a railroad company, the Burlington Northern. “Each train displaces 280 trucks on the road,” Buffet was quoted as saying at the time of the deal. “When it comes to spewing pollutants there is nothing more efficient than trains. It’s very much in line with the future goals of society.”
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d place my future infrastructure investment bets with a whiz like Buffett before laying them down with the 1990s thinking that produced our current interstate highway plan calling for two bridges and a rebuilt Spaghetti Junction.
Photo: Courtesy The Ohio River Bridges Project