Why Is Offshore Drilling So Dangerous?
by Remy Melina
The Gulf of Mexico oil leak fired up arguments against offshore drilling. After decades of heated debate, this incident shed light on its dangers and impact on the environment.
Offshore drilling, the process of extracting oil and gas resources from underwater locations, including lakes, has been conducted at increasingly deeper and farther off shore sites in recent years, as shallow fossil fuel reserves and near-shore drilling locations have become exhausted.
But with deeper drilling depths comes increased danger including higher risks of accidents, spills and fires, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
"Big Oil has perpetuated a dangerous myth that coastline drilling is a completely safe endeavor, but accidents like this are a sober reminder just how far that is from the truth," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez in a press statement. "The fact is that 509 oil rig fires have broken out in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006."
Why is it so dangerous?
One reason for this increased danger is the complex equipment needed to drill at such depths. As offshore drilling continues to be pushed to new depths, with oil companies continuously drilling in deeper waters and penetrating further underground, the technology needed to achieve these feats is extremely complex and not entirely invincible.
This is a pretty frigging complex system, said Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in an interview with Yale Environment 360, a publication of Yale University. You've got equipment and steel strung out over a long piece of geography starting at surface and terminating at 18,000 feet below the sea floor. So it has many potential weak points. Just as Katrina's storm surge found weaknesses in those piles of dirt the levees gas likes to find weakness in anything we connect to that source.
Another reason for the danger is the harsh offshore environments that pose engineering challenges to offshore drilling equipment. Severe weather, ice and storms pose risks to the functionality of the rigs, and their distance from land make it harder for additional rescue personnel to promptly reach the areas in emergency situations.
The inexperience of oil companies at operating at these depths is a third issue.
BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles acknowledged that many of his company's efforts to stop the oil leak failed because they had never had to plug a well at such depths and were therefore unprepared for the conditions that foiled their attempts including ice formation inside of the original containment dome due to freezing deep water temperatures.
The Deepwater Horizon oil rig had drilled the world's deepest offshore well before it exploded and sank on April 20, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The Deepwater Horizon drilled the well to 35,055 feet (10 kilometers) or more than six miles, operating in 4,130 feet (1 kilometer) of water, according to BP.
The first rig to attempt such depths, the well's pipes had been cemented for only 20 hours before the rig went up in flames, according to oil services contractor Halliburton Inc.
"The bottom line is that when you drill for oil, there is always a risk that not only puts lives on the line, but a risk that puts miles of coastline and the economy on the line as well," Menendez said.
Drilling plans and drilling bans
In the beginning of May, Chevron Canada started drilling what could now become the world's deepest offshore oil well, and planned to reach a depth of one kilometer deeper than the well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig. However, the drilling project was put on hold by Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board until the company can provide evidence that it has taken sufficient preventative measures against oil spills.
On March 31, President Obama had announced the end of a decades-old ban on oil and gas drilling along much of the U.S. Atlantic coast and in northern Alaska. The lifted ban was aimed at increasing the United States' energy independence and reducing foreign imports so that it would not need to rely so heavily on other countries for energy supplies. The U.S. Atlantic coast could hold as much as 37 trillion cubic feet of gas and 4 billion barrels of oil, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates.
But less than a month later, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig sank about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Venice, Louisiana.
President Obama recently announced during his weekly address that no permits for drilling new deepwater wells will be issued until a 30-day safety and environmental review of all deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico has been completed. Representing 30 percent of our oil production, the Gulf of Mexico plays an important role in the future of the country's energy production, said Obama.
"But we can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again," Obama added.
White House officials said that Obama is considering extending the hold on permits for six more months and may delay or cancel specific drilling projects off the coasts of Alaska and Virginia and in the western Gulf of Mexico, according to the New York Times.
Part of what is happening in the Gulf is that oil companies are drilling a mile under water before they hit ground, and a mile below that before they hit oil, Obama said. With the increased risks, the increased costs, it gives you a sense of where we're going."
Sunday Sermon Vol. 2 No. 6
When we set out to create a new conservation group, one thing that was important to me was not to be limited by geography. In fact, not to be limited by anything more than the circumference of the earth. So it is that in the coming week, we will be taking members on our first official outing to Big Bend National Park for a week of hiking, exploring and enjoying the majesty of this stunning part of the Chihuahuan desert.
When that trip is complete, we will regroup in New Mexico for a short couple of weeks, before heading east to begin our engagement on an issue that is both important and close to my heart. North Carolina for those who do not know me, was the place that I spent my summers, it is where I learned to drive a car, it was also where I made a sad attempt at a college education many years ago. The North Carolina of my youth was a land of pine trees, humidity, and dirt roads. It was a place that a young man was forced to wear a suit every Sunday and accompany his grandmother to church; one that had no air conditioning.
In the summer to escape the heat, we headed to the coast to spend a magical week on the ocean, searching for shark teeth, body surfing and making castles in the sand. In mid-March I will have a homecoming of sorts, and the focus once again is the coastline. You see North Carolina has grown up in my lifetime. It is an economic power, the land where banks rein supreme, where golf and shopping malls are tempered only by evangelical preaching, stone ground grits and college hoops.
It has also has become an epicenter of national news with the tons of coal ash that has exploded into the Dan River and the ineptitude of the Governor and his so-called Environmental head, John E. Skvarla III to control the situation.
Our purpose in going to North Carolina will not be coal ash, there are many good groups fighting that fight. We are there to help organize and fight off Big Oil’s efforts to open most of the southern coast of the United States to off-shore oil and gas development.
You see, with a radical governor, Pat McCrory and (if it’s possible), an even more radically-right controlled legislature, North Carolina's citizens are being sold out: by a mix of creationist thinking and the crushing of women’s rights and efforts to suppress voting. In such a toxic environment, the oil industry and the far-right are making a power play.
In planning the trip, I spoke to faculty at several coastal universities, fishing guides, business owners, students and foundations. One thing is clear: Big Oil representatives have been throwing money around on the coast. They've benefitted greatly from the legislative control (which they helped create), and desire to move with stealth and aggressiveness to make sure drilling occurs. With a preoccupied public, that tact is working.
Governor McCrory is diabolical in nature, and has a very aggressive timeline for getting the coast open to drilling, while enjoying the perks of his relationships with industry. Had the recent coal ash spill not occurred, we may well have been in very dangerous waters, but the spill and his response have opened a window into his dogmatic approach to the environment.
Last Thursday, Rachel Maddow did a brilliant piece on just how Republican elected officials work to create controversies on environmental issues where none exists. From Climate change, to coal ash clean up, many Republican leaders fight science, because it directly conflicts with creationism. So oil cannot take millions of years to create, it must have another explanation, one that fits the byline of 'less than 6000 years.'
With the coal ash spill, Republican leaders were saying that there was a debate amongst scientists on what would be the best way to solve the cleanup. What Maddow showed clearly (and what many of us know all too well), is that amongst scientists, there is no debate on how to clean up this spill, or for that matter protect our environment, or protect species; these are simply creative talking points, designed to fool an uninformed public and cause division amongst the electorate.
North Carolina’s coast is second only to California’s in biodiversity. Endangered right whales and humpbacks pass the coast. Red wolves hang on, despite recent killings just a few miles from the coast. Research continues to reduce overfishing and preparing the coast for the rise in sea levels. Yet, next month a decision will be made as to whether to allow seismic testing for oil and gas, off this very coastline.
Some coastal Tea Party mayors have already come out in support of offshore development. Many fishermen, tired of government regulation (so they say) will have to decide if they want to support conservation of the resource, or sellout to Big Oil.
The wheels are turning, in a state with no experience in oil and gas development. Our role is to share--with as many as we can--the realities that we have faced in New Mexico: from pollution to the destruction of safe drinking water, from childhood asthma spikes to the elevated cancer rates that rob families of quality of life and from the money which controls small towns and mayors and perpetuates the addiction that is destroying our planet...oil.
Bold Visions may be small, but we never think that way. We continue to search for the problem spots and work to find solutions for the planet, not for fools. The month ahead will be busy; it will also be a chance to rediscover a part of my personal past while helping a beautiful part of America and the wildlife that depends on our shared existence, fight for a saner future.
Humpback Tales Vol. 2 No. 4: