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Oceana Magazine Spring 2010: Catastrophe in the Gulf

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez, the Deepwater Drilling Disaster shows how vulnerable we still are.

By Suzannah Evans

In the evening of April 20, two days before the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, something went wrong on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, a mile underneath the oil rig named the Deepwater Horizon.

An explosion of methane, oil and mud erupted where the Deepwater Horizon’s pipeline met the seafloor in a blowout that ruptured the pipeline, resulting in a gush of oil and natural gas from the underground reservoir directly into the ocean. The explosion coursed up the drill column and ignited the rig in an inferno that rivaled the most dramatic apocalypse movies.

Workers gathered on remains of the rig’s deck as it became engulfed in flames. According to interviews survivors gave later, several jumped to the ocean more than eight stories below rather than wait for the lifeboats to be loaded.

In the end, 115 workers survived. Eleven were killed. The Deepwater Horizon sank two days later. The oil continued to gush from the ruptured pipe a mile below the surface. By the end of May, experts agreed that it had surpassed the Exxon Valdez as the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.

The Deepwater Horizon represented the best technology the oil industry had to offer. Built in 2001 for $350 million, the rig was longer than a football field and half again as wide. With its four wide-seated legs and towering derrick, the Deepwater Horizon resembled the exoskeleton of an enormous, futuristic insect.

In September 2009, at a different location, the Deepwater Horizon drilled deeper than any offshore rig had before: 35,000 feet down, below the ocean and thousands of feet of rock, it hit paydirt. The exploratory drilling yielded a new untapped resource that BP, the company leasing the rig, estimated contained three billion barrels of oil. A month later, BP extended its lease on the rig for three years at $554 million.

When the rig exploded in April, it wasn’t digging at record depths. At 18,000 feet, the rig was operating well within its range. BP had assured the Minerals Management Service, the government agency that oversees drilling, that the venture was safe.

The Deepwater Drilling Disaster embodied the failings of the oil industry even as it developed more intricate technologies and recorded record profits.

“Our ability to drill for oil has far outpaced our ability to clean up after an oil spill,” said Dr. Jeff Short, Pacific science director for Oceana and one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of oil spills on the environment. “Despite our best efforts, only about 14 percent of the oil spilled by Exxon Valdez was ever recovered. In the 20 years since, we are still struggling to protect ecosystems from devastating oil spills.”

A month after the explosion, the Deepwater Horizon’s busted pipeline was still spewing a noxious mix of oil and natural gas. An attempt by BP to cap the leak failed, and other options, like drilling a relief well, would take months to implement.

Meanwhile, the oil rose to the surface. Thanks to weather patterns and ocean currents, the oil slick expanded and contracted every day, moving across the Gulf like a sticky shadow. In some places, it was whipped into a thick reddish mousse; in other places, it was a reflective sheen. By mid-May, it covered about 3,800 square miles.

Fishermen, who had been part of the Gulf’s $10.2 billion seafood industry, have been reluctantly enlisted to help with the cleanup after state and federal fishing closures kept them from their day jobs. But their efforts, along with the federal government, to skim or contain the oil were Sisyphean at best as the original break remained unstanched.

“The Deepwater Drilling Disaster is a stark reminder that offshore drilling is neither safe nor clean,” said Jackie Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana’s climate and energy campaign. “This is a wake-up call. We need to stop the expansion of offshore drilling. We simply can’t afford to let this happen again.” In March, the Obama administration announced a new offshore drilling policy that was mostly bad news for conservation. While President Obamafully protected the ecologically important Bristol Bay of Alaska and cancelled some proposed lease sales in the Arctic, he left open other parts of the Arctic and announced plans to lease most of the eastern seaboard of the United States for exploratory drilling, much of it for the first time.

And in May, Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman presented climate change legislation that actually promotes offshore drilling – even as oil continued to gush from beneath the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to devastate wildlife and jobs in the worst environmental crisis in American history.

“Offshore drilling will never be safe in any form,” Savitz said. “We’re not willing to trade away our oceans and fishery and tourism economies to the oil industry. There can only be one solution to this – a clear plan for a clean energy future where we harvest wind, not dirty oil, from offshore.”

The fallout from the disaster has begun. The planning process for drilling in Virginia, the east coast state farthest along, was postponed “indefinitely” by the Obama administration. Several prominent senators and at least two Republican governors have tempered their previous support for drilling.

But in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas, where a major oil spill would far outstrip any human ability to clean it up, drilling has been postponed until at least next year.

“We’ve learned a major lesson in the Gulf, but it was a lesson we should have learned after Exxon Valdez,” Short said. “Now, we must move quickly to prevent this from happening again.”

 

OCEANA'S CAMPAIGN

Oceana opposes offshore drilling, which will never be safe or clean.

In February 2009, Oceana board member Ted Danson testified before Congress, urging a ban on offshore drilling. In May 2010, in the aftermath of the Deepwater Drilling Disaster, Dr. Mike Hirshfield, Oceana's vice president for North America and chief scientist, also testified before Congress. Oceana's campaigners have traveled to numerous government hearings around the country to speak on the effects of offshore drilling on coastal ecosystems and communities.

We are hard at work on Capitol Hill to ensure that any legislation on climate change does not promote offshore oil and gas drilling. We also oppose oil and gas exploration in the U.S. Arctic.

Sign the petition to stop offshore drilling and demand a clean energy future at www.stopthedrill.org.

Myths of offshore drilling

by Simon Mahan

 

Myth #1: Offshore drilling is safe.

The Deepwater Drilling Disaster is not an isolated incident. Since 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service reports there have been at least 21 offshore rig blowouts, 513 fires or explosions offshore and 30 fatalities from offshore oil and gas activities in the Gulf of Mexico. Just last year, a new offshore oil drilling rig off the coast of Australia had a similar blowout, and spewed approximately 16,800 gallons of crude oil daily into the Timor Sea for about 75 days.

 

Myth #2: Offshore drilling will lower gas prices.

Additional offshore oil drilling will not lower gas prices and will put millions of people’s jobs at risk. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimated that by 2030 gasoline prices would be $3.88 per gallon if all the U.S. oceans were open for drilling – just three pennies less than if previously protected ocean areas were closed. Oil is a global commodity; therefore additional U.S. oil supply would have to be significant enough to alter the global price of oil in order to affect local gasoline prices. The U.S. cannot produce enough oil from offshore areas to make a difference in global oil prices. Additionally, an oil spill can threaten the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen as well as economies that rely on coastal tourism.

 

Myth #3: Offshore drilling will make the U.S. energy independent.

The only way to become truly energy independent is to end our addiction to oil. The DOE estimates that the country would still import about 58 percent of its oil supply despite expanded domestic oil drilling, including opening up offshore areas. Currently, approximately 62 percent of the crude oil supplied to the U.S. comes from foreign sources. The United States simply does not have enough domestic oil to fulfill its demand.

Additionally, all oil is priced on a global market, regardless of its source or purchaser – domestic or foreign. Regardless of how much oil the U.S. produces, the oil will be sold to the highest bidder, meaning that domestic drilling would do little to alter the U.S.’s energy economy.