Winds of change?
At this writing, crude oil is continuing to leak from the crumpled riser pipe lying on the seabed in 5,000 feet of water at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site in Mississippi Canyon Block 252. Technically a blowout from an 18,000-foot exploration well on the Macando
Prospect, rather than a spill onto the sea surface, this incident underscores the associated risks, even in the exploration stage, much less during full-scale development (drilling of numerous production wells, production and transportation of oil and gas, and the onshore infrastructure required to support these activities).
A Louisiana native, some years ago I conducted research and scientific assessments of the long-term effects of offshore oil and gas development. To be objective, the amount of oil spilled from U.S. offshore development is remarkable in that it has been much lower than the alternative of tanker transportation on a per volume of supply basis. Spills from offshore rigs have been small. The largest previous spill was one off Louisiana in 1967 when an anchor damaged a buried pipeline, releasing nearly 161,000 barrels of crude oil. There have been only 13 spills since 1998 that have exceeded 1,000 barrels, most of those hurricane related.
The most significant, enduring effects of offshore petroleum development have resulted from the physical impacts of supporting activities onshore. Indeed the impacts of the oil and gas extraction industry (both coastal and offshore) on Gulf Coast wetlands represent an environmental catastrophe of massive and underappreciated proportions.
Still, offshore drilling is clearly not risk-free, particularly when fail-safe blowout preventers fail. And, as the Deepwater Horizon blowout demonstrates, even though the risk may be low, the consequences may be quite high when drilling in very deep waters, where Plans B and C take weeks or months to implement.
While the ecological disaster that environmentalists, scientists, and even governors forecast or fear has yet to materialize or be uncovered as the oil slicks remain mainly offshore, serious economic consequences are already realized. Fishing has been closed down. Markets for seafood become depressed, affecting a far greater area. And, people are cancelling their vacations along the coast of Florida.
The effects of the Deepwater Horizon blowout on future U.S. offshore oil and gas development and energy policy are yet to be fully determined, but public awareness and political reactions to this point indicate they will be substantial. The Deepwater Horizon blowout took place just two years after British Petroleum's successful bid to lease the
tract from the U.S. Minerals Management Service. MMS had planned to conduct a lease sale for an area off Virginia in as soon as two years. That probably will and should be delayed.
Earlier I commented here that expanded offshore production would not significantly reduce dependence on foreign oil and that we should be redoubling our efforts to get off oil. I hope for Earth's sake, that the winds will blow Congress out of its long-winded debate, as Tom Toles aptly captured in his cartoon, toward the direction of passage of comprehensive energy legislation that will accomplish this redoubling of effort.
Posted by: liveride | May 9, 2010 3:50 PM
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