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.