Deepwater Horizon and Expanded Domestic Drilling for Adults
Send the kiddies to bed. It's time for grown-up talk about oil, the environment, and the Green Movement.
Opposing all expansions of domestic oil drilling is exactly the same logical and ethical position that the opponents of the Cape Cod Windfarm are taking.
My first career was Biology, and nothing would make me happier than some energy miracle that would take us off the petroleum teat, though there would still be a (smaller) petroleum industry. Oil is too precious to burn up for fuel. It's necessary for plastics, synthetic fabrics, lubricants and many other things. Even if I run out and buy an electric car, the tires, wiring insulation, belts, paint, plastic parts, and lubricants will still be oil-based. The rational environmental focus should be on conservation and alternatives. Opposing all drilling for environmental reasons is like opposing farming because food leads to obesity.
The US (and the world) needs oil, and will need oil for a long time to come, under even the most optimistic projections of conservation and alternative energy development and deployment. In fact, the future Green Energy Infrastructure will be built primarily by the old Black Energy Infrastructure. Those windmills are not going to grow from seeds. They are going to be fabricated, erected and maintained by the consumption of fossil fuels, and many of the components (plastics, epoxies, synthetics) are going to be literally made out of petroleum.
Here's a sobering study on the topic.
So the question is not "Will there be drilling?" but rather where, and how there will be drilling.
Back to Deepwater Horizon. That single event is no more (or less) relevant to the overall safety of modern drilling in the US than an individual airliner crash is to the fact that it is safer to fly from Seattle to New York (on a regulated and inspected US airline) than it is to drive there. If you had a ticket for a flight on Friday and the Seattle-to-New York flight crashed on Wednesday, would you cancel your ticket and blog that airplanes are all death traps and nobody should ever get on one again? Or would you note that the newspaper didn't cover the 2,357 flights that were in the air at the same time that didn't crash, quell your fears, reflect that there had probably been extra-special attention paid to maintenance and inspection because of the crash, and get on the damned airplane?
However, if you were looking at flying in a patched-up DC-3 through the Andes mountains with a one-eyed, unlicensed pilot who keeps a bottle of rum in his chart case (instead of charts), your evaluation of "air safety" might differ.
That's the real choice. Drill in Nigeria, which is an unregulated ecological and humanitarian nightmare, with minimal media and no criminal or civil liability for the polluters, and then ship the oil thousands of miles by tankers, which have been responsible for most of the worst spills in the last 30 years or so, and burn huge amounts of oil themselves, (as well as transporting invasive species) ... or produce it locally, in an industry that is regulated, inspected, enforced, and reported upon and then move it in pipelines which are immensely safer and more energy-efficient than tankers?
Even with the Deepwater Horizon before us, I'll say that modern offshore drilling is generally clean, and not terribly disruptive of the environment as long as there is regulation and enforcement that forces Best Practices and Best Technology. If you go down to the Gulf of Mexico fishing or diving, your guide will probably take you right out to the platforms, which are artificial reefs in a hard-substrate-limited ecosystem. He will have to be careful to avoid the numerous shrimp boats trawling between the platforms. I worked my way through college in the Gulf oil fields to pay for my BS in Biology, and returned to 'the Patch' in 1990 to pay off my debts from my MS in Marine Biology, and have worked there as a USCG licensed Mariner since then. (I decided that, like sex, science was more enjoyable for me as a hobby than a profession.) And I've seen the continuous improvements in the technology, practices and personnel over that time. This is not your Grandfather's oilfield. Certainly there are mistakes, 'cut corners' and violations, as there are in every human endeavor, but the people I've worked with for the last 20 years have been (on the whole) professional and responsible people trying to do an important and difficult job for their society.
Here's an interesting article on the Katrina/Rita damage to the oilfields and the resulting pollution.
The majority of the oil spilled in Katrina and Rita came from damage to facilities ashore, not offshore platforms. Those facilities would exist even if there was no domestic drilling to process, store and distribute imported oil. For that matter, much of the spilled oil probably WAS imported.
The offshore spills were primarily fuel and chemicals stored on the platforms rather than crude from the wells. It's still oil in the water, but not a failure of safe drilling practices. (Also refined products generally evaporate fairly quickly and do less damage than crude.) The total of ALL the Katrina/Rita spills was far less than the single Exxon Valdez spill, reinforcing the assertion that there is more risk in shipping oil by tanker than drilling for it domestically. The relatively small spills caused by such a huge event are a tribute to the safety of modern drilling practices. It doesn't bear thinking about 1960s tech in the same situation. I'm all for energy conservation and alternate energy. But until that Bright Day, we need oil. The Katrina/Rita impacts also highlight a need to spread out our oil fields (and refining facilities) to protect against having one big disaster cripple our infrastructure. This is also worthy of note: "The amount spilled by industry pales in comparison with seepage from natural fissures — an estimated 1,700 barrels per day off the coast of North America, regulators note." Of course that oil comes in small amounts spread over a large area, and is handled by the natural mechanisms of oil degredation, but it gives a sense of scale. (Did you know that there are bacteria that thrive in deisel fuel?)
Is "Buy Locally; Think Globally" less applicable to petroleum than tomatoes? Or do we just care about our local environment rather than the global one?
If Deepwater Horizon had been in Nigeria, we'd probably have never heard about it, there wouldn't be dozens of boats and hundreds of people trying to stop the spill and clean it up, and nobody would be held criminally or civilly accountable for the deaths and pollution. It would be "business as usual."
The current restrictions on drilling have arguably contributed to the catastrophic nature of the Deepwater Horizon spill. If this well was being drilled in 50, or 500 feet of water instead of 5000, it would have been capped in hours or days, and the spilled oil would have been much easier to contain because it would surface in a smaller area instead of spreading out underwater as it rises through a mile before it hits the surface. Deepwater drilling is more difficult and expensive than shallow water operations. So why drill in 5000 ft of water? Because the shallow reserves in the 'Oil Patch' are tapped, and a bunch of NIMBYs in Florida and California want the beef, but don't want to see the cows.
If we're going to burn oil, and we will for most of the rest of this century, the most ecologically, economically, and ethically sound decision is to produce as much as we can right here in our back yards. We will never get to the Green without burning a whole lot of Black. Real environmentalism requires real decisions, not wishing for the Green Fairy to magically get us there.