Crude Facts About Offshore Drilling

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This unprecedented accident for the American offshore drilling industry, the first significant spill in 40 years, will certainly have a calamitous impact on the Gulf marine environment and surrounding coastal areas. What is less certain, but potentially even more dangerous, is the effect that this spill will have on the US domestic oil industry. While environmentalists clamor for a shut down of all offshore drilling in the Gulf, realists know that this will make the threat to ocean life even greater. What has not being told to the public is that nature itself leaks more oil into the ocean each year than mankind, and has been doing so for millions of years. What is even less known is that offshore drilling can actually reduce the amount of crude released into the seas.

While the knowledge that nature spills more oil into the ocean environment than humans in noway reduces the amount of harm this accident will cause, or excuse those in both industry and government who are responsible for the event occurring, it should be a reminder to all that man's transgressions against nature, as bad as they are, are nothing compared with nature's own. Indeed, offshore drilling is responsible for half of the oil spillage as tankers, and together these man-made spills only account for 1/16 the amount released by natural seeps. Scientists are well aware of this situation, as was reported in a recent paper in Nature Geoscience, entitled “Asphalt volcanoes as a potential source of methane to late Pleistocene coastal waters.” In it, David L. Valentine et al. report:

A recent assessment of oil sources to the ocean revealed that natural seepage accounts for nearly half of all input. Oil seeps occur in a range of environments from the continental shelves, to continental slopes, and deep basins. Satellite imagery from the northwest Gulf of Mexico suggests ~1,900 km of persistent natural oil slicks at the sea surface in that region alone, with many other seep regions dispersed globally. Oil seeps also typically release large quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The co-occurrence of oil and gas at seeps is thought to increase the atmospheric methane flux through the formation of protective surface coatings on gas bubbles, but significant fractions of methane still dissolve into the water; for example, approximately half the methane emitted by the seeps at Coal Oil Point, California, dissolves in the water column

When methane dissolves into the ocean it depletes the water's oxygen content, which is why investigators on the scene of the current Gulf spill have noticed the oxygen content of the surrounding water dropping. This is obviously a threat to any sea life in the area. In California, where being green is almost a requirement of residency, offshore drilling has been suppressed for years even though it probably does no good. Valentine et al. explain: “The timing and volume of erupted hydrocarbons from the asphalt structures can explain some or all of the documented methane release and tar accumulation in the Santa Barbara basin during the Pleistocene.”


Tar bubble at the La Brea tar pits, Los Angeles. Photo Daniel Schwen.

This means that, even without human drilling activity, there would still be escaping methane, robbing the seas of oxygen, and oil washing up on the beaches as sticky tarballs. It doesn't take a genius to figure this out. After all, one need only look at the famous La Brea Tar Pits and ask “what would happen if a similar tar pit occurred underwater?” But asking such questions unsettles the blame-humanity-first crowd.

Since 1975, offshore drilling in the Exclusive Economic Zone (within 200 miles of US coasts) has a safety record of 99.999%. This means that only 0.0001 percent of the oil produced has been spilled. In the waters of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), between 1993 and 2007 there were 651 oil spills, releasing 47,800 barrels of oil. Given 7.5 billion barrels of oil produced during that period, one barrel of oil has been spilled in the OCS per 156,900 barrels produced. The truth is, the amount of oil spilled from platforms, tankers, and pipelines is small, relative to the amount of oil extracted and transported.

Even so, oil spills remain an unpleasant reality of offshore oil drilling. Certainly, any amount of oil spilled into the ocean is undesirable, but offshore oil operations contribute relatively little of the oil that enters ocean waters each year. By far the largest source of human caused oil release is through “normal” use of oil products—people just dumping used oil away. According to the National Academies’ National Research Council, natural processes are responsible for over 63% of the petroleum that enters North American ocean waters and over 45% of the petroleum that enters ocean waters worldwide.

According to research by scientists from UC Santa Barbara and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), 8 to 80 times the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez accident has leaked from petroleum seeps near Coal Oil Point in the Santa Barbara Channel. Published in the May 15 issue of Environmental Science & Technology, documents how the oil is released by the seeps, carried to the surface along a meandering plume, and then deposited on the ocean floor in sediments that stretch for miles northwest of Coal Oil Point. In “Weathering and the Fallout Plume of Heavy Oil from Strong Petroleum Seeps Near Coal Oil Point, CA,” Christopher Farwell et al. report a seepage rate of 20−25 tons of oil daily in that area alone.


Oil seeps naturally from the sea floor.

Earth's ecosystems are more resilient than most people realize. According to oceanographers at Old Dominion University: “the oceans have been receiving natural oil for at least 400 million years. The city of Santa Barbara, California, receives more gases from natural seeps, than from all man made sources. The Gulf of Mexico has over 600 sources of natural oil leaks. And the oceans have absorbed more oil than all that is currently left on the planet.”

In contrast to what green activists will tell you, offshore drilling can actually reduce the amount of oil leaking into the sea. Research shows that, because it relieves the pressure that drives oil and gas to leak from ocean floors, drilling can reduce natural seepage. In 1999, two peer-reviewed studies found that natural seepage in the northern Santa Barbara Channel was significantly reduced by oil production. The researchers documented that natural seepage declined 50% around Platform Holly over a twenty-two-year period, concluding that, as oil was pumped from the reservoir, the pressure that drives natural seepage dropped (See “Oil and Gas Seepage from Ocean Floor Reduced by Oil Production”).

Though offshore drilling has proven to be less environmentally dangerous than shipping oil in tankers, occasionally an accident will focus the world's attention on the damage crude oil can do when spilled. Just such a spill, emanating from a pipe 50 miles offshore and 5,000 feet underwater, erupted into the news in late April, 2010.


Fire boat crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. Photo US Coast Guard.

The US Gulf coast states have a love hate relationship with the oil industry. America gets around 30% of its oil from the more that 3,500 offshore drilling rigs that dot the Gulf of Mexico. These rigs bring jobs, both on the drilling platforms and at the onshore refineries that turn the crude into heating oil and gasoline. Most of the time, the residents of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida are happy to have the oil industry in the Gulf. In fact, the governors of other states had called on the federal government to relax restrictions so oil exploration could take place off their shores.

President Obama had publicly announced his administration's support for expanded drilling for domestic oil and gas. Exploratory offshore drilling was planned for several parts of the east coast of the United States that were previously off limits. Then the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, leased and operated by British Petroleum (BP), suffered the worst US offshore oil disaster since the Exxon Valdez sank off the coast of Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude into Prince William Sound in 1989.

The immensity of the disaster in the Gulf unfolded slowly over several weeks. It started with an explosion and fire on the platform, 11 workers went missing and are presumed dead. After burning for several days the platform eventually sank on April 22. Only then did rescue workers on the scene realize that there was oil leaking from the site. The oil leak was not at the surface but at the base of the bored hole.

To avoid just this type of spill, all offshore oil rigs have safety devices that are supposed to shut off their wells in the event of an accident. Something obviously went terribly wrong on the Deepwater Horizon. Oil from the fractured drilling pipe now threatens Louisiana’s sensitive coastal wetlands as strong winds and rough waters hampered clean-up efforts. The miles of floating barriers have proven ineffective and the well continues to spew oil into the fisheries and fragile ecosystems of the Gulf.


Oil burns during a controlled fire in the Gulf of Mexico, May 6, 2010. Photo US Navy.

How to cap the massive blowout, which is leaking and estimated 200,000 gallons a day, remain elusive. Capping a geyser of oil 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico is a feat never before attempted. “The sort of occurrence that we've seen on the Deepwater Horizon is clearly unprecedented,” BP spokesman David Nicholas told the Associated Press. “It's something that we have not experienced before ... a blowout at this depth.”

The Transocean Ltd. rig that sank was worth over $600 million and BP was reportedly leasing the rig for $500,000 per day. Under US law and international treaty, BP is responsible for all expenses stemming from the accident—the damages could run into the billions. As of this report, BP is frantically trying to contain the spill and clean up costs are running $6 million per day. Environmental damage is being estimated at close to 8 to 12 billion dollars but, in the end, the worst damage may be to the US domestic oil industry.

Eco-activist group Oceana is trying to collect a half a million signatures to stop all new offshore drilling (stopthedrill.org). When this article was written, the total was only around 33 thousand. And there is little chance that existing production wells will be shut down either. As mentioned, the Gulf provides about 30% of America’s 6.7m barrel-a-day domestic output and Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, who is heading the investigation into the Deepwater Horizon accident, says production will not be halted. When green politics collide head-on with America's energy needs there is little question, at least in politician's minds, what the outcome will be.

The crude facts are these:

  • Restricting offshore drilling will lead to the US importing more oil from other sources, which will increase spillage, as well as weaken national security.
  • Drilling farther out than 75 miles falls under Federal jurisdiction, not under the control of individual states. Drilling closer to shore is safer than drilling farther off the coasts, but green groups have forced drilling to be done out of sight and in deeper water.
  • Under some conditions, drilling wells in offshore waters can reduce the amount of oil released from natural seeps by reducing the pressure in the oil traps.
  • The US gets ~30% of its domestic oil from the Gulf. There is no way that the Obama or any other administration will shut it down.

Seawater covered with thick black oil splashes up in brown-stained whitecaps. AP Photo.

As usual, the green position is totally untenable. Offshore drilling will continue until America and the rest of the world can break their oil addiction, which will not be any time soon. Until an acceptable alternative to the internal combustion engine is found, and the hundreds of millions of cars and trucks on the road today are replaced, the world will continue to run on oil. Not that BP, Transocean and Halliburton should be left off the hook—they should pay for cleaning up their mess and for the hardship inflicted upon the local people, whose lives they have harmed, even it it drives all three into receivership.

Through their whining and wailing, the eco-lobby has pushed drilling farther off shore where accidents are more probable and containment harder—nature suffers but they get to feel pious and smug. Ignorant and ideological, the greens lash out at those they do not like and offer “solutions” that do not work: Biofuels that consume more energy than they produce and produce more pollution than the fuels they replace, all while laying waste to the worlds remaining forests; wind turbines that kill birds and bats and can alter local climate; solar power plants that ruin fragile desert ecosystems and have the greens themselves up in arms. The world's energy problems will not be solved by consumer abstinence and a gaggle of wonky alternative energy sources. Blinded by their own fanaticism, every time greens get involved in energy matters they make the problem worse.

We all need to remember that, every time the lights come on when we throw a switch, every day we hop into our vehicles to take the kids to school or commute to work, every day we go shopping in the grocery store and find it filled with fresh produce from around the world, those things are possible, at least in part, due to oil. For most of the history of mankind, kings and queens could not live as well as the average citizen of a developed country does today. The Deepwater Horizon accident is a catastrophe for many reasons—not the least of which being the deaths of 11 men who laboured at one of the most dangerous jobs around to support their families and allow the rest of us to live comfortable lives.

The threat to the ecosystems in and around the Gulf of Mexico is real and tragic, as is the damage to the local tourist and fishing industries. With every picture of an oil soaked bird or sea turtle the voices of those who wish to shut down the oil industry everywhere, on land and sea, will become more strident. We cannot hide our heads in the sand and ignore the world's growing need for energy, and we cannot wish the hazards of drilling for oil away. Life is full of hard choices and we need to act like educated adults: let us punish those responsible to the limit of the law, regulate the offshore drilling industry to ensure this does not happen again, and insist that our government takes serious action towards solving our energy problems.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay sceptical.



We cannot hide from the world's growing energy needs.

Head in Sand

You have some interesting pictures on this blog. The man with his head in the ground is extremely funny. It's unfortunate what we are doing to our planet with all the polution. If we keep this up we'll only see animals of the see in taxidermy stores.

Sources?

I was wondering where you got your facts from... I have a friend that is being attacked because he supports off shore drilling... I'd like to help him defend himself using only credible sources so that I can shut the "attacker" down... That may be a little B-wordy BUT if someone attacks my friend and don't know what they are talking about then they deserve to have me make them look like an idiot. You may call me over protective, but I prefer to see it as having a buddy's back lol :) So, if you could point me in the right direction it would be much appreciated!

There's this thing called the Internet

I would suggest you click on the various links embedded in the article above. Particularly “Oil and Gas Seepage from Ocean Floor Reduced by Oil Production.” Some of the papers may not let you read for free, but you can take the references to your local university library and read them there.

BP Turned Away Help From James Cameron

According to Yahoo! News, film director and deep-sea explorer James Cameron said on Wednesday that BP Plc turned down his offer to help combat the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Cameron said he has offered to help the government and BP in dealing with the spill but was “graciously” turned away by the British energy giant.

The rejected Cameron also suggested the US government needed to take a more active role in monitoring the undersea gusher. “Over the last few weeks I've watched, as we all have, with growing horror and heartache, watching what's happening in the Gulf and thinking those morons don't know what they're doing,” he reportedly said. The director of Avatar and Titanic, who has worked extensively with robot submarines and is an expert in undersea filming, has a habit of calling people he considers less intellectually gifted than himself names.

His comments came a day after he participated in a meeting at the US Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington to “brainstorm” solutions to the oil spill. Obviously, BP's failure to cap the leak must be some kind of conspiracy. Nonetheless, James is reportedly standing by, ready to create a seven foot tall, blue avatar for Barack Obama, so he can snorkel down to the well head and plug the leak.

Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

What happened after the Ixtoc 1 in 79/80?
As far as I can ascertain there leaked some 3.5 million barrels into the Gulf at that time.

Oil Spills Past

Great question. The Ixtoc 1 oil spill was the second worst oil spill in history and the worst accidental one. In June, 1979, Pemex, the state-owned Mexican petroleum company, was drilling an offshore oil well when a blowout occurred (sound familiar?). Oil began gushing out of the well into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels a day. The leak continued for almost an entire year before workers were finally able to cap the well and stop the leak.

As with the Deepwater Horizon, dispersant chemicals were sprayed on the resulting oil slick by airplanes, with mixed results. Prevailing currents carried the oil towards the Texas coastline. The US government had two months to prepare booms to protect major inlets. Eventually, in the US, 162 miles (261 km) of beaches and 1421 birds were affected by 3,000,000 barrels (480,000 m3) of oil. Thousands of endangered baby sea turtles had to be airlifted from Rancho Nuevo, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, to a clean portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

More than 30 years later, the final impact of the Ixtoc oil spill is not fully known. It is clear that the spill, as large as it was, did not produce lasting wide-scale environmental disaster or species extinction. The oil was dispersed or consumed by natural microorganisms within a couple years. In all, Pemex spent $100 million to clean up the spill, but avoided paying compensation by asserting sovereign immunity.

The American press is fixated on comparing the Deepwater Horizon leak to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill because the later had been the worst in US waters, until now. But the Exxon Valdez spill doesn't even make the list of top ten oil disasters:

  1. Arabian Gulf/Kuwait - January 19, 1991
    Location: Persian Gulf, Kuwait
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 380-520 million gallons
    Cause: content of several tankers duped trying to prevent troop landing
  2. Ixtoc 1 Oil Spill - June 3, 1979 - March 23, 1980
    Location: Bay of Campeche off Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 140 million gallons
    Cause: offshore oil well blowout, oil caught fire causing rig to collapse
  3. Atlantic Empress Oil Spill - July 19, 1979
    Location: Off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 90 million gallons
    Cause: tanker was caught in a tropical storm and collided with another ship
  4. Kolva River Oil Spill - September 8, 1994
    Location: Kolva River, Russia
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 84 million gallons
    Cause: ruptured pipeline
  5. Nowruz Oil Field Spill - February 10 to September 18, 1983
    Location: Persian Gulf, Iran
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 80 million gallons
    Cause: tanker collision with an oil platform
  6. Castillo de Bellver Oil Spill - August 6, 1983
    Location: Saldanha Bay, South Africa
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 79 million gallons
    Cause: tanker caught fire, broke in half and sank
  7. Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill - March 16, 1978
    Location: Portsall, France
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 69 million gallons
    Cause: supertanker ran aground during a winter storm
  8. ABT Summer Oil Spill - May 28, 1991
    Location: approximately 700 nautical miles off the coast of Angola
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 51-81 million gallons
    Cause: ship exploded
  9. M/T Haven Tanker Oil Spill - April 11, 1991
    Location: Genoa, Italy
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 45 million gallons
    Cause: tanker exploded and sank off the coast of Italy killing six people
  10. Odyssey Oil Spill - November 10, 1988
    Location: off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada
    Amount of Oil Spilled: 40.7 million gallons
    Cause: tanker broke in two, caught fire and sank in heavy seas. All 27 crew members missing and presumed dead.

Note that the Lakeview Gusher Number One, the largest recorded US oil well gusher, was larger than the Ixtoc spill, but it happened on land. The Lakeview gusher occurred in 1909, when pressure blew at least part of the well casing out, along with an estimated 9 million barrels (378 million gallons/1.4 billion liters) of oil. It took until September, 1911, before the gusher was brought under control—around 18 months.

For comparison, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska on March 24, 1989, it spilled 257,000 barrels (10.8 million gallons) of oil, polluting 1100 miles of Alaskan coast. In terms of sheer volume, the Exxon Valdez spill ranks as the 35th worst oil spill in history. Given recent news accounts it would seem that the Exxon Valdez is now 36th and the Deepwater Horizon is now in 35th place.

Wikipedia has a more comprehensive, though un-ordered list here.

Top Kill Fails, on to the LMRP Cap.

On May 29, BP engineers announced that the “top kill” technique had failed to halt the oil leaking from their ruptured well in the Gulf of Mexico. After consultation with government officials, they have decided to move on to another strategy. Neither the top kill or junk shot techniques, widely talked about in the media (probably because of their colorful names), worked due to the very high pressure of the oil and gas streaming from the damaged well. According to the New York Times:

Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said at a news conference that the engineers would try once again to solve the problem with a containment cap and that it could take four to seven days for the device to be in place.

The next attempt to cap the well will use a device called a lower marine riser package (LMRP) cap containment system. The LMRP cap would allow BP to capture as much of the flow from the well as possible while it works on other options to kill the well, he said. The last, best option is tapping into the leaking well shaft with a second, relief well. Drilling a relief well, which is already well underway, could take until August.

President Obama, who is facing mounting criticism about the government's response, is reportedly “heartbroken.” Meanwhile, details of possible negligent behavior by BP are starting to surface. The New York Times says that issues regarding the well casing and blowout preventer were raised as far back as last June. As the public fallout from the disaster grows, the government is becoming more assertive and meddlesome, reportedly telling BP to abandon “top kill” and move on to the next option. Things will be getting worse before they get better.

Five Questions on the Spill

The May 21, 2010, issue of Science has an article by Richard A. Kerr and three other staff writers regarding ongoing concerns about the Gulf oil spill. The questions they ask are the following:

  • What's happening to the oil?
  • What's happening to life on the sea floor?
  • What's happening to coastal ecosystems?
  • What's happening to marine life?
  • What's happening to fisheries?

The article mainly poses questions for future study and details some of the scientific studies that are now underway to assess the ecological damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It is a levelheaded review, not an eco-rant. For ongoing coverage refer to http://news.sciencemag.org/oilspill/.

Oiling the Earth

What's happening to the things affected?-in a few words, s...t happens.

M.Kerjman

Oceana want's to Ban New Offshore Oil Drilling Now

The good folks at Oceana have put out a video about the Gulf oil spill...