Image CreditShould the United States drill for oil in protected offshore waters?
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- Yes? But have you considered...
- No? But have you considered...
…that offshore oil drilling could have devastating environmental consequences?
The history of offshore oil production is an environmentally sordid tale. In 1969, off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., a Union Oil Co. rig suffered a blowout, a frenzied oil gush caused by an imbalance in drill pressure, and spilled 80,000 barrels of oil into the ocean. Corpses of dolphins, seabirds and seals washed up on tarred shores. Ten years later, an oil industry rig in Mexico suffered a blowout, spilling 3.5 million barrels of oil, some of which washed up on Texas beaches.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that there have been 187 large oil spills between 1981 and 2005 in OCS areas open to drilling, with each spill releasing more than 2,100 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. And oil rigs and platforms are bowling pins waiting for hurricanes to roll down the alleys in which they sit. As Katrina and Rita plowed into offshore drilling equipment, more than 17,700 barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum got dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Minerals Management Service considers an oil spill of 100,000 gallons — about 2,380 barrels — to be “major.”
Plus, oil spills aren’t the only environmental concern. Rigs also produce emissions of greenhouse gases and compounds that are known carcinogens and asthma-inducers, such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and volatile organic compounds. According to the NRDC, each well also creates 180,000 gallons of drilling waste, including toxic metals, mercury, lead and cadmium. Much of this waste is dumped untreated into surrounding waters.
Hydrocarbon drilling also leads to sinking land, as water descends to fill a vacuum — like drinking soda from a straw. The phenomenon, called subsidence, is evident along the Louisiana coast, and some geologists claim offshore drilling contributes to the destruction of wetlands, making the areas even more vulnerable to hurricanes. In addition, shipping canals and navigation channels built by the oil and gas industry have been blamed for up to 30 percent of Louisiana’s wetlands loss.
Finally, all of the damage inflicted by oil exploration and production is to excavate a resource that, when burned in the transportation sector — typically as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel — is responsible for 33 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Because GHG emissions contribute to global warming, it is likely that the United States will soon start to phase out oil combustion, which means that a foray into offshore waters for petroleum would serve only to enrich oil companies while polluting the environment.
…that drilling for oil in offshore waters is safer than importing oil using tankers?
Most oil spills occur when an oil tanker — usually ferrying imported oil — collides with another object. Thanks to strict U.S. regulations, offshore oil rigs have proven to be less of an environmental risk than foreign tankers.
Since 1980, offshore rigs have produced 4.7 billion barrels of oil with a spill rate of only 0.001 percent. Natural fissures in the earth allow up to 1,700 barrels of oil a day to seep into the oceans, an amount 150 times greater than oil and gas industry spillage.
And when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita plowed through the Gulf of Mexico, offshore operators showed exemplary safety. According to the American Petroleum Institute, nearly 3,050 platforms and more than 22,000 miles of pipelines were in the direct path of the hurricanes. But according to experts, the amount of oil that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the storms, when considering the vast area of offshore oil production, was about the equivalent of dumping a triple espresso into a public swimming pool. The U.S. Minerals Management Service found no accounts that spills from facilities on the federal OCS had reached the shoreline nor had oiled birds or mammals — there were no discoveries of oil that required cleanup. The petroleum industry attributed the safety record to rig precautions, including shutting down production and using well-controlled systems to prevent loss of oil.
Producing oil from offshore rigs is also safer than importing oil because the foreign tanker industry is not as strictly regulated as the U.S. fleet. Saying we can’t drill for our own oil offshore because we need to protect our beaches is saying we would rather roll the dice that a loosely regulated 500,000-ton foreign tanker is the safer bet.
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