The Political Chemistry of Oil Spills

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So I'm going to talk to you about you about the political chemistry of oil spills and why this is an incredibly important, long, oily, hot summer, and why we need to keep ourselves from getting distracted. But before I talk about the political chemistry, I actually need to talk about the chemistry of oil. This is a photograph from when I visited Prudhoe Bay in Alaska in 2002 to watch the Minerals Management Service testing their ability to burn oil spills in ice. And what you see here is, you see a little bit of crude oil, you see some ice cubes, and you see two sandwich baggies of napalm. The napalm is burning there quite nicely. And the thing is, is that oil is really an abstraction for us as the American consumer. We're four percent of the world's population; we use 25 percent of the world's oil production. And we don't really understand what oil is, until you check out its molecules, And you don't really understand that until you see this stuff burn. So this is what happens as that burn gets going. It takes off. It's a big woosh. I highly recommend that you get a chance to see crude oil burn someday, because you will never need to hear another poli sci lecture on the geopolitics of oil again. It'll just bake your retinas. So there it is; the retinas are baking. Let me tell you a little bit about this chemistry of oil. Oil is a stew of hydrocarbon molecules. It starts of with the very small ones, which are one carbon, four hydrogen -- that's methane -- it just floats off. Then there's all sorts of intermediate ones with middle amounts of carbon. You've probably heard of benzene rings; they're very carcinogenic. And it goes all the way over to these big, thick, galumphy ones that have hundreds of carbons, and they have thousands of hydrogens, and they have vanadium and heavy metals and sulfur and all kinds of craziness hanging off the sides of them. Those are called the asphaltenes; they're an ingredient in asphalt. They're very important in oil spills. Let me tell you a little bit about the chemistry of oil in water. It is this chemistry that makes oil so disastrous. Oil doesn't sink, it floats. If it sank, it would be a whole different story as far as an oil spill. And the other thing it does is it spreads out the moment it hits the water. It spreads out to be really thin, so you have a hard time corralling it. The next thing that happens is the light ends evaporate, and some of the toxic things float into the water column and kill fish eggs and smaller fish and things like that, and shrimp. And then the asphaltenes -- and this is the crucial thing -- the asphaltenes get whipped by the waves into a frothy emulsion, something like mayonnaise. It triples the amount of oily, messy goo that you have in the water, and it makes it very hard to handle. It also makes it very viscous. When the Prestige sank off the coast of Spain, there were big, floating cushions the size of sofa cushions of emulsified oil, with the consistency, or the viscosity, of chewing gum. It's incredibly hard to clean up. And every single oil is different when it hits water. When the chemistry of the oil and water also hits our politics, it's absolutely explosive. For the first time, American consumers will kind of see the oil supply chain in front of themselves. They have a "eureka!" moment, when we suddenly understand oil in a different context. So I'm going to talk just a little bit about the origin of these politics, because it's really crucial to understanding why this summer is so important, why we need to stay focused. Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks, "Wow! I'm going to go buy some three-carbon-to-12-carbon molecules to put in my tank and drive happily to work." No, they think, "Ugh. I have to go buy gas. I'm so angry about it. The oil companies are ripping me off. They set the prices, and I don't even know. I am helpless over this." And this is what happens to us at the gas pump -- and actually, gas pumps are specifically designed to...
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