Offshore Drilling: Is Energy Worth the Ecological Disaster of Oil Spills?

offshore drilling worth oil false hope image photo

photo: Pete Turner/Getty Images
In light of the BP oil spill and it's unfolding consequences, it seems appropriate to revisit the entire topic of offshore oil drilling. This post was first written in February 2009, with updates in June 2010.

When this post was first written fuel prices and the United States' future energy policy were the prime reason offshore oil drilling made the headlines. Over a year later and it's the BP oil spill, resulting from an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.

WATCH VIDEO: Offshore Oil Drilling Explained

Taking a step back from the emotional response of the recent environmental devastation, let's take a look at offshore drilling more broadly: How much oil do we currently produce from offshore drilling, and how much might we potentially recover? What's the status of the moratorium banning offshore drilling in various areas? What are the environmental risks? And perhaps most importantly, what is the psychological impact of thinking that offshore oil holds promise as a source of abundant, less-expensive oil when nothing could be farther from the truth?
offshore oil drilling rig photo

photo: _J_D_R_ via flickr

Offshore Oil Then & Now

The term offshore drilling refers to the extracting of oil from fields that lie beneath the ocean floor, anywhere from a few hundred feet to 200 miles off the coast. As easily recoverable oil reserves, both onshore and offshore dwindle, exploration is increasingly turning to deepwater locations a mile or more beneath the ocean's surface.

The first offshore well was drilled in 1887 from a wooden wharf off Summerland, California; technology improvements have made it possible to drill in deeper water and farther from shore ever since. Today, some 4,000 platforms operate in the U.S. federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico, primarily off the coastlines of Louisiana and Texas, and off the coast of Alaska, producing approximately 565 million barrels of oil per year, according to the Energy Information Agency. US offshore oil production of 565 million barrels per year equates to roughly 1.5 million barrels per day (30% of total US oil production); contrast that figure with U.S. current oil consumption of 21 million barrels per day.

The debate about offshore drilling stems from questions over how much oil potentially could be recovered from underwater fields versus the time and cost, both in dollars and environmental impact, related to that process.

Political posturing notwithstanding, offshore drilling will not eliminate US demand for foreign oil or really even make significant strides into reducing that dependency. At current consumption, the US uses about 8 billion barrels of oil per year; conventionally recoverable oil from offshore drilling is thought to be 18 billion barrels total, not per year. What's more, offshore oil drilling will not guarantee lower fuel prices--oil is a global commodity, and US production is not big enough to influence global prices.

new offshore oil drilling compared to total united states oil supply chart

image: Architecture 2030

Oil Spills Impact Humans, Non-Humans Alike

With the BP oil spill forcing the worst of the environmental risk associated with offshore drilling to the fore, let's take a step back for a second and examine some of the less flashy aspects of the potential problems.

Recent research suggests that transporting the oil poses greater threats than the drilling process itself. In Louisiana, the 10,000 miles of canals dug to transport oil and lay pipelines contribute to coastal erosion because the canals crisscross the state's coastal wetlands.

While technology improvements have lessened the occurrence of oil spills in the last 40 years, the Mineral Management Service a bureau in the U.S. Department of the Interior that manages the nation's natural gas, oil and other mineral resources on the outer continental shelf, projects about one oil spill per year of at least 1,000 barrels in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 40 years. Every three to four years, it says, a spill of at least 10,000 barrels can be expected.

As the BP spill illustrates, these spills could potentially hit the beaches of western Florida, Alabama, and Texas. In Louisiana, it's not just beaches, but wetlands that can affected--destroying critical wildlife habitat, hurting tourism and ruining the livelihoods of fishermen throughout the region.

Additionally, out to sea the impact on wildlife is dramatic. Beyond killing adult animals, the spawning grounds of endangered bluefin tuna and other iconic species is contaminated.

The BP oil spill is unprecedented in scale in the United States, and recent simulations show that once a spill reaches this size it can be picked up by ocean currents and be dragged far away from the initial spill area. In the Gulf of Mexico, should a spill get into the Loop Current it can easily be taken all the way to Florida, through the Florida Keys (impacting Cuba and other Caribbean islands in the process), up the East Coast as far as North Carolina and then out into the Atlantic.

oil-soaked bird photo

photo: Marine Photobank via flickr

Expanded Offshore Drilling's Uncertain Future

Rights to U.S. offshore areas are shared between the states and the federal government according to various acts passed over the years. Specifically, the states have jurisdiction over any natural resources within 3.45 miles of their coastline (except Texas and the west coast of Florida where the jurisdiction extends to 10.35 miles), and the U.S. has rights up to 200 miles off the coastline.

Offshore drilling has been banned in various areas thought to be particularly environmentally sensitive over the years. An offshore oil moratorium that had been in effect since 1981 expired October 1, 2008. With the lifting of the ban, areas in the Gulf of Mexico can be opened up for drilling by the federal government. Additionally, areas off the coasts of California, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia can be opened up if those states approve. By November 12th, 2008, the MMS began the process for approving leases off the coast of Virginia.

However, offshore drilling in new areas won't deliver a drop of oil for ten years, according to numbers cited by the Bush administration last year. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently did a detailed study of the likely outcome of offshore drilling for their Annual Energy Outlook 2007, and concluded that increased access would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil production or prices before 2030.

offshore oil rig at sunset photo

photo: Jim Snenddon via flickr

Just a few weeks prior to the BP oil spill, President Obama announced that more areas would be opened up for offshore drilling, though a compromise was made which kept several areas the oil industry wanted access to off limits. Post-disaster, the Obama administration halted this process, and several politicians on both sides of the aisle who had previously expressed support for greater drilling reversed their position.

As it stands as the start of June 2010, expansion of offshore drilling in US coastal waters remains on hold pending investigation of the causes of the BP oil spill. Given that President Obama and other members of his administration have continued to express support for offshore drilling, provided that additional safeguards are put in place to prevent a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, once the gushing oil is stopped there remains a possibility of expanding offshore drilling once again.

Even if it is not expanded, it is not so much a question of if more oil spills happen, but when. As the BP oil spill makes clear, even something short of a worst-case scenario--scary to think that this isn't the largest spill in history--has catastrophic impacts on the ecosystem and its inhabitants, human and non-human alike.

So why do we keep drilling? Oil addiction pure and simple--and energy addiction in general.

"Thinking that there is more oil to be drilled offshore gives people a false sense of hope that there's actually enough oil out there to make us energy independent," says Jonathan Dorn, staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute. "Nothing could be farther from the truth."

Revisions to the post made in June 2010 done by Matthew McDermott

More on Offshore Oil Drilling:
Offshore Oil Drilling Graph for Itself
Offshore Oil Drilling Will Still Not Lower Gasoline Prices
How Offshore Drilling Works
New Bill Would Ban Offshore Drilling and Increase Fuel Economy Standard
Will a Rough Hurricane Season Worsen the BP Oil Spill?
Must See Aerial Footage of BP Oil Spill Shows 'The Gulf Bleeding' (Video)

Offshore Drilling: Is Energy Worth the Ecological Disaster of Oil Spills?
Taking a step back from the emotional response of the recent environmental devastation, let's take a look at offshore drilling more broadly: How much oil do we currently produce from offshore drilling, and how much might we potentially recover?

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