Offshore Drilling Is – and Will Remain – A Risky Business

“At the source of every error which is blamed on the computer you will find at least two human errors, including the error of blaming it on the computer.” – Author Unknown 

As talk in the Gulf (and in Washington, DC) turns from the technological glitches that caused the Deepwater Horizon spill to the technological fixes we can use to solve this problem and ensure the future safety of our oil and gas drilling activities, I think it’s worth pointing out that – at the end of the day, no matter what changes we make – offshore drilling will remain a risky business. Despite everyone’s best efforts, nothing in this world is 100% perfect or safe. As NRDC commented this past fall when Secretary Salazar asked for comments on the Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program: 

“It was just last September that at least a half-million gallons of crude oil were released from platforms, tanks, and pipelines throughout the Gulf of Mexico as a result of Hurricane Ike. Nearly 685,000 gallons of petroleum products were released from 125 spills from platforms, rigs, and pipelines on the OCS as a result of previous Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Even the best technology cannot eliminate operational and human error or the devastating impacts from accidents in offshore oil and gas operations. The inevitable dangers of offshore oil and gas exploration are tragically clear from the blowout of a well on the West Atlas Montara platform in the Timor Sea. On August 21, 2009, the blowout began spewing somewhere in the range of range of 17,000 to 120,000 gallons of oil per day. As of September 21, 2009 the blowout continues to spew oil, with the oil slick now visible from satellite and covering 7,530 square miles. The plugging of the well is at least three weeks away. Despite a statement by the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association that this is a “very, very rare incident”, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority is as of yet unable to stem the continuous flow of oil into the Timor Sea. The spill is located along the edge of Australia’s continental shelf in an area frequented by loggerhead turtles, dolphins, and endangered species like the pygmy blue whale and referred to as “one of the world’s last true wilderness areas” by Tourism Australia.

There are few effective techniques to clean massive spills of this type. As Bob Masters of the Kimberley Professional Fisherman's Association described of the efforts to mitigate the impacts of the Timor Sea blowout: ‘[M]illions of dollars worth of red emperor, snapper, cod and coral trout are found in the waters known as the northern fishing ground … When dispersants are used to clean up this light crude it forces the dispersed oil into the water column and that's where the fish stocks are and the marine life, living in the water column.’ According to the National Academy of Sciences, current cleanup methods can only remove a small fraction of the oil spilled into the ocean. Scientists investigating the long-term impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill estimate that nearly 20,000 gallons of oil from that spill remain in Prince William Sound, continuing to harm threatened and endangered species and undermine their recovery. Marine mammals, sea birds, fish, shellfish, and other sea life are extremely vulnerable to oil pollution and the long-term toxic effects can impair reproductive success for generations.”

In brief, the impacts of expanded offshore drilling pose the risk of oil spills ruining the country’s coastal and ocean resources – beaches and rich ocean waters that belong to the public – and threatening the jobs, health, and recreation of people who live, work, and vacation along the coasts. From seismic survey impacts in the exploration stages, to drilling muds and cuttings and produced water from oil wells, to oil spill impacts – oil and gas exploration and development is a risky business that affects all forms of ocean life and the industries that rely on healthy oceans. Read the NRDC fact sheet for more information (pdf).

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pause, take a step back and evaluate what happened at Deepwater Horizon. It also doesn’t mean that we should just sit on our hands and not try to stem the flow of oil gushing into the Gulf’s waters. Rather, we need to have a better understanding of what risks we’re willing to take. The industry has reassured us time and again that oil and gas drilling are safe, but accidents do happen and the environmental and economic consequences of these accidents can be massive. The country deserves a better understanding of what’s at risk so that we can make better decisions about our energy future.

NRDC supports imposing a moratorium on all new drilling activities offshore and a suspension of the processes the Administration now has underway to plan for future offshore drilling until an independent investigation can be completed that assesses the causes of the current spill, how such spills can be avoided in the future, the adequacy of containment and clean-up measures for spills generally, and the implications of these findings for drilling in, or adjacent to sensitive and ecologically important areas. NRDC sent a letter to President Obama outlining our recommendations for how we can protect marine life and coastal communities from similar spills in the Gulf or elsewhere. 

The American public deserve answers to these questions before new drilling activities and planning processes go forward.

TAKE ACTION: Tell President Obama to Impose a Moratorium on New Offshore Drilling