NEW YORK, 10 MAY 2010
Dear EarthTalk: Given the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last
month, isnt it high time the government put a stop to offshore oil
drilling once and for all? Short of banning it altogether, what can be
done to prevent explosions, leaks and spills moving forward?
P. Greanville, Brewster, NY
The explosion of BPs Deepwater Horizon drill rig on April 20 and the
resultant oil spill now consuming coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico
could not have come at a worse time for President Obama, who only recently
renewed a push to expand drilling off the coast of Virginia and other
regions of the U.S.
The debate over whether or not to tap offshore oil reserves with
dangerous drilling equipment has been raging since extraction methods
became feasible in the 1950s. It heated up in 2008 when George W. Bush
convinced Congress to lift a 27-year-old moratorium on offshore drilling
outside of the already developed western Gulf of Mexico and some areas off
Alaska. Despite public protests, cash-strapped governments of several
coastal states wanted the moratorium lifted given the potential for
earning windfall revenues.
Barack Obama had historically toed the Democratic party line on
offshore drilling dont allow it b ut changed his tune during his 2008
campaign to compromise with pro-drilling Republicans if they would play
ball with him on his carbon emissions reduction and energy efficiency
initiatives. Then on March 31, three weeks prior to the Deepwater Horizon
explosion, which killed 11 workers and has caused untold environmental
damage, Obama called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic from
Delaware to central Florida and in Alaskas untapped northern waters. He
also asked Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling in the oil-rich
eastern Gulf of Mexico, just 125 miles from Floridas beaches.
Photo: Sky Truth, courtesy
A key aspect of President Obamas new plan is to assess the potential
risks and benefits of each specific offshore site before drilling there
can commence. While Mr. Obamas plan wouldnt grant any new leases until
2012, the Deepwater Horizon problem is casting a long shadow over the
public comment process now going on in Virginia and other coastal states
otherwise ready to sign on the dotted line for exploratory wells to go
into their offshore waters. Whether or not Congress and the American
people are willing to let their government expand on what appears already
to be some risky business is anybody's guess at this point.
Oil industry representatives maintain their equipment and processes are
safer than ever. The U.S. Minerals and Management Service (MMS) blames the
vast majority of the 1,400 offshore drilling accidents in U.S. waters
between 2001 and 2007 on "human error," not malfunctioning equipment,
though some might argue that the distinction is irrelevant because there
will always be human error. A small fire on the Deepwater Horizon in 2005
was found to be caused by human error, and most analysts agree some kind
of bad judgment call also likely caused the rigs ultimate demise. The MMS
says it was already in the process of drafting new regulations that would
require rig operators to develop programs focused on preventing human
error, including operations audits once every three years for each
Some Congress members dont think the new regulations are enough,
especially in the wake of the BP tragedy. U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a
Florida Democrat who has led opposition to offshore drilling, has now
called for a congressional investigation of safety practices at offshore
oil rigs, and has asked the U.S. Interior Department to undertake a full
review of all U.S. drilling accidents over at least the last decade.
CONTACTS: BP, www.bp.com; U.S. Minerals
and Management Service, www.mms.gov.
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