By Paul Driessen
Forty years ago this month, a well blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel forever changed the way America looks at oil – and launched the anti-oil environmental movement.
The blowout was the only accident in over 45,000 US offshore wells where significant amounts of oil reached our coasts. The other good news is that the environmental impacts were temporary, and the accident initiated enormous advances in blowout prevention rules and technologies. The bad news is that the spill resulted in leasing and drilling bans that continue to this day, locking up an estimated 85% of our nation’s offshore oil and gas prospects, costing the United States billions in lost lease, royalty and tax revenues, and forcing us to import far more oil than would be necessary if we adopted more sensible energy policies.
My commentary analyzes the accident, discusses the aftermath, and offers policy prescriptions – from the perspective of someone who actually worked for the federal agency that regulates offshore oil and gas programs … and is one of a handful of people who has actually been scuba diving under the very platform where the infamous blowout occurred.
(The Santa Barbara blowout began on January 28, 1969, and gushered oil for twelve days, before it was brought under control. Ocean and beach cleanup took many months.)
Thank you for posting it.
Paul Driessen Senior policy advisor
Congress of Racial Equality and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow
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Plummeting stock and housing prices have triggered a painful recession, America’s worst job losses since 1945, and trillions in lost national wealth.
California is grappling with a $42-billion budget deficit. That’s more than the GDP of 112 countries. Maryland, Virginia, New York and other states likewise face billion-dollar budget shortfalls.
Congress and the White House want a $1-trillion “stimulus” for the banking, auto and steel industries, roads, bridges and ports, and “worthy” projects like water parks, parking garages and fitness centers.
They also support expanded renewable energy programs that will require tens of billions in subsidies and tax breaks – but provide intermittent electricity and deliver only 5-15% of their “rated capacity” during peak summer demand periods.
Many states have oil, gas, coal uranium and other energy and mineral resources, within their borders or off their coasts. Development would produce critically needed energy, reduce oil and gas imports, create millions of jobs, buttress our national security, and generate trillions of dollars in lease bonus, rent, royalty and tax revenues, to help pay these bills.
California could nearly double its offshore oil production within 12-18 months, without installing a single new platform, by using directional drilling technology to bore more wells from existing platforms.
But environmentalists vigorously oppose development. Many states increasingly restrict exploration and production. The US Senate is considering bills that would place more energy prospects off limits. Many legislators want a permanent lock on billions of barrels of oil beneath Alaska’s North Slope and America’s Outer Continental Shelf – despite support for drilling by two-thirds of voters.
Onshore, the usual justification is speculative or exaggerated impacts on wildlife, habitats and groundwater from drilling and production. Offshore, the most common rationale is the infamous oil blowout that occurred forty years ago this month, off Santa Barbara.
That spill is the only one in over 45,000 US offshore wells where significant amounts of oil reached our coasts. And it never would have happened, if it weren’t for the incompetence of a few federal regulators and oil company officials.
The guilty well was being drilled into brittle, highly fractured rock formations which sit atop a more stable zone that holds billions of gallons of gooey crude oil, mixed with natural gas under high pressure. It’s the same oil that’s been seeping out of the shallow formations and washing up on California beaches since long before Spanish explorers used it to waterproof their galleons.
But having drilled several wells without incident, company officials requested a waiver from normal regulations. Unbelievably, it was granted. The drill crew was allowed to install minimal well casing – steel pipes that go into well bores to prevent blowouts.
When oil and gas began to erupt out of the deep drill hole, the crew’s quick response stopped it only temporarily. Because the casing didn’t go deep enough, the pressurized goo surged into the brittle rocks, creating huge gashes that sent gushers of oil out around the platform. For six days, favorable winds kept the oil slick offshore. Then the wind shifted.
Oil inundated Santa Barbara’s gorgeous beaches. Thousands of sea birds died, along with seals and countless other marine animals. The anti-oil environmental movement was born.
Thankfully, dire predictions of permanent damage were wrong. Bird, crab, lobster, seal and other populations soon rebounded. Under the platform, the magnificent artificial reef ecosystem returned.
Enormous mussels, scallops and barnacles again cover the huge scaffold that holds the production platform above the waves. Gorging on shellfish, and having to move mere inches for their next meal, starfish grow to three feet across. Oriental carpets of white, pink and lavender sponges and sea anemones create firework displays of color, while crabs scamper about and thousands of mackerel, sardines and other fish cruise by.
I know this, because I’ve been there, up close and in person, in scuba gear, beneath that very platform and a dozen others in the Santa Barbara Channel and Gulf of Mexico. I joined biologists, wrote professional papers, and produced a documentary film about these towering steel reefs.
Even more important, the technologies, regulations and enforcement programs have changed. Today, instruments monitor temperature and pressure in wells 24/7. Blowout preventers, pipeline shutoff valves and other devices on or beneath the sea floor control the flow of oil and gas. Offshore operators conduct regular accident training and safety exercises. The efforts have paid off.
In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pounded the Gulf of Mexico’s 3,000 drilling rigs and production platforms. Over 200 were damaged or destroyed. But virtually no oil or gas escaped.
In fact, according to the US Minerals Management Service (where I used to work), oil companies produced nearly 12 billion barrels of oil from OCS leases between 1980 and 2007. Only 102,000 barrels were spilled: 3,780 barrels a year, on average. That’s a 99.999% safety record.
By contrast, natural seeps like the ones off California leak 620,000 barrels of oil per year into US waters. America’s oil industry has a pollution record 164 times better than Mother Nature’s!
And producing more US offshore oil has an added bonus. It means there is less seepage, and thus less oil in our oceans and on our beaches.
Our energy policies should recognize these facts.
America has been held hostage far too long by anti-oil ideologues and foreign “oiligarchs.”
Keeping our vast resources off limits won’t convince consumers to slash petroleum use. We will just import more, and be ever more indebted to foreign powers. (At $50 per barrel, imported oil costs the United States $235 billion per year; at $140 per barrel, we send $650 billion annually overseas.)
Oil prices are low at the moment, because world demand is down, due to the global recession. We could keep them down, by prolonging the recession – an unpalatable option. Or we can help keep prices at tolerable levels, by developing the domestic oil and gas that we have in abundance, but politicians, courts and greens for too long have told us we can’t touch.
We need the energy, jobs and revenues that offshore (and onshore) oil and gas development can provide. We can no longer afford to “just say no” to domestic petroleum, during the long transition to future energy technologies that we cannot begin to envision – any more than even Jules Verne could have foreseen the wondrous energy and other technologies that creative minds have made a reality today.
That’s the kind of change we can believe in. The kind America needs.
Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Congress of Racial Equality and Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow, and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death.
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