Drilling means spilling, hundreds of annual incidents, most small, unreported, yet their cumulative effect is devastating, what the industry and nightly news won’t mention or explain.
On February 25, 2009, Environmental Research web.org writer Kate Ravilious did, headlining “Small unreported oil spills add up to major damage,” saying:
Big spills make headlines while small ones “often go unnoticed and unreported. But these little slicks could be just as damaging to the environment as large spills, according to new research findings.”
Barcelona, Spain Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya Professors Jose Redondo and Alexei Platonov developed a way to spot spills from satellite images. They show that “small oil spills are very common, and when added together they become comparable to large” ones. Their frequency makes them damaging, yet little about them is reported.
Studying European waters alone, they determined that major spills happen every few years, large ones three or four times a year, and smaller ones virtually daily. Extrapolated globally over time amounts to a major environmental problem, compounded by many small incidents and natural seepage — as much as 14 million barrels a year globally offshore.
“For example, it seems that there are four to five times more spills (large and small) in East Asia than in European Coastal waters,” and Middle East ones experience “significantly more spills.” Most often, negligence to cut costs is why.
According to Redondo and Platonov, “the cumulative effect and toxic dose (of small spills) is the same as a large spill, and will be detected in the long run,” as well as their environmental damage, slowly destroying the health of global waters.
Charles Clusen, Natural Resources Defense Council National Parks and Alaska Projects director believes up to 500 spills happen annually and will increase with greater production, plus natural seeps adding more. According to former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA) supervisory researcher Jeff Short:
“Once you have a spill, you are pretty much screwed. That’s because oil spreads on water at a rate of one-half a football field per second. Recovery can take decades.”
Another expert says offshore spills cause more damage than a terrorist attack. They’re unacceptable risks — reason enough to ban all shallow and deep water drilling and strictly regulate the rest. Besides daily spills, the Gulf of Mexico alone has experienced over 500 oil rig fires since 2006, most never reported, the latest on September 2. More on it below.
Exhibit A in Alaska was the Prince William Sound Exxon-Valdez incident. After over 20 years of natural weathering, it remains an environmental and human catastrophe, and it was minor compared to BP’s greatest ever environmental crime.
On land, drilling is hazardous, but offshore requires complex technology, greatly increasing the risks. According to UC Berkeley Engineering Professor Robert Bea:
“This is a pretty frigging complex system. You’ve got equipment and steel strung out over a long piece of geography starting at the surface and terminating at 18,000 (or more) feet below the sea surface. So it has many potential weak points,” compounded by negligence to cut costs. “Just as Katrina’s storm surge damage found weaknesses in those piles of dirt — the levees — gas likes to find weakness in anything we connect to that source.”
Drilling is a dirty, dangerous business. The long-term harm greatly outweighs the benefits. Besides spills and other accidents, the ecological damage is immense, contaminating waters and shorelines. Drilling releases toxic muds, containing poisonous heavy metals, including mercury, cadmium and lead, as well as dangerous amounts of arsenic, benzene and radioactive minerals. According to the EPA:
Drilling “may leave behind waste containing concentrations of naturally-occurring radioactive material (NORM) from the surrounding soils and rocks. Once exposed or concentrated by human activity, (it) becomes Technologically-Enhanced NORM or TENORM. Radioactive materials are not necessarily present in the soils at every well or drilling site. However, in some areas of the country, such as the upper Midwest and Gulf Coast states, the soils are more likely to contain radioactive material.”
“Radioactive wastes from oil and gas drilling take the form of produced water, drilling mud, sludge, slimes, or evaporation ponds and pits. It can also concentrate in the mineral scales that form in pipes (pipe scale), storage tanks, or other extraction equipment.”
Naturally occurring radioactive materials include radium and radon gas, potent carcinogens that accumulate in water, wildlife, plants and vegetables, and take 1,600 years to degrade. Combined with other toxins (after decades of offshore drilling) has left vast areas of global waters dangerously toxic — why nothing in them should be eaten.
The Latest Reason to Ban All Offshore Drilling
On September 2, operating 100 miles south of Louisiana’s Vermilion Bay in shallow water (several hundred feet deep), a rig operated by Mariner Energy, Inc. (a Houston-based independent oil and gas producer) exploded and caught fire, a company press release saying:
The company “confirms that a fire has occurred at a production platform located on Vermilion Block 380, approximately 100 miles from the Louisiana coast. All 13 members of the crew have been evacuated and safely accounted for. No injuries have been reported. In an initial flyover, no hydrocarbon spill was reported.”
False. Workers told rescuers they heard a blast, saw a fire, and had to jump into Gulf waters to be safe. One injury was reported. The Coast Guard said a mile-long, hundred foot wide oil sheen was seen near the site, then later about-faced saying no oil was spotted. It’s there and spreading, but there’s no indication how much or whether the release was contained. First reported at 9:20AM, the fire was extinguished about six hours later.
Mariner’s rig is a production, not drilling platform like BP’s. At year end 2009, it produced 47% oil and 53% natural gas. The company has interests in nearly 350 offshore leases, including over 80 in deep water down to 7,100 feet. More than 110 are in development.
According to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOE, formerly the Mineral Management Service — MMS), federal authorities cited Mariner and its related operations for 10 Gulf accidents in the past four years. They included platform fires, oil spills and a blowout. In a 2008 incident, one employee sustained serious injuries. In early 2010, the company was fined $55,000 for safety violations.
Consider its history. As a former Enron unit, it faced bankruptcy, saved only by private equity investors buying it at fire sale prices. On April 15, Apache Corp., America’s largest independent oil and gas producer, announced plans to buy Mariner, calling the deal “a strategic step and a natural extension into the deepwater Gulf… provid(ing) an exciting new platform for growth….” The agreement is still on, Apache saying it’s monitoring developments closely but hopes to complete its acquisition in a matter of weeks.
Despite offshore drilling dangers; the industry’s history of violations, accidents, and spills, some major like BP’s; and the growing contamination of waters and coastal areas, the rage to drill is unabated, few in Congress willing to challenge Big Oil’s muscle.
After the Mariner explosion, however, environmental groups are flexing theirs, wanting offshore drilling banned, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director, John Hocevar, saying:
“How many times are we going to gamble with lives, economies and ecosystems? It’s time we learn from our mistakes and go beyond oil,” for sure stop drilling offshore to get it.
Jackie Savitz, senior campaign director for the environmental group Oceana agrees, saying: “We think all offshore oil drilling should be banned, but not just the deepwater drilling. Even oil spills in shallow water are bad. It doesn’t have to be in deep water to be a disaster.”
Environment America’s Mike Gravitz said Obama “need(s) no further wake-up call to permanently ban new drilling.”
In a September 2 press release, the Center for Biological Diversity said:
“Today’s explosion… is the latest in a string of accidents in recent decades illustrating the dangers of offshore drilling in shallow (or deep) waters.” It called for expanding the moratorium, explaining that “Offshore drilling is an inherently unsafe, toxic activity that, every day, puts people and the environment at risk.” Only one solution can work — a total ban.
After the BP incident, a coalition of 14 environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace, wrote Obama, urging a permanent moratorium, saying:
“In response to the BP drilling disaster, we specifically urge you to establish a presidential drilling moratorium which would permanently restore coastal protections for areas currently not leased for offshore oil and gas drilling, and cancel exploratory drilling permits for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Furthermore, we urge you to use the full force of your office to push for a comprehensive bill that cuts oil consumption, curbs global warming pollution and shifts us towards clean energy.”
The group also called for a “top to bottom review of worker safety, blowout avoidance technology, and oil spill clean up plans for operations in the Outer Continental Shelf.”
Others believe only a total ban can work, shifting America’s fossil fuel addiction to alternative, clean sources. The choice is simple — either a healthy, safe environment or one contaminated and destroyed. There may be little time left to decide.