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Posted by on Jul 22, 2008 in Politics, Science & Technology | 20 comments

About those oil spills

In a previous column which touched on energy policy in general and domestic oil drilling in particular, a point was brought up in comments.

Since the oil companies have failed to develop the oil and gas leases they already hold, and because many of those are easier than offshore drilling, and because oil companies lost dozens of oil platforms in the last few hurricanes, and because those losses polluted the Gulf coastline causing ugly, toxic and expensive problems, pushing for offshore drilling is actually a pretty stupid policy proposal that could well cost McCain Florida.

These are common complaints regarding domestic oil production and I see them frequently. How do we gage these concerns? The first one seems to be a no brainer, and in fact I agree. If there are unused, potentially productive leases, we deserve some answers as to why they aren’t already being devloped, particularly if they are “easier” than accessing reserves under the ocean.

Did we lose dozens of oil platforms in the last few hurricanes? Actually, that’s putting it mildly. According to the government’s Mineral Management Service, we lost a combined total of 113 platforms to Katrina and Rita which were listed as being “destroyed” with quite a few more “damaged.” This was in addition to 457 pipelines damaged, with 101 of them being “large” pipelines. (Defined as ones which are 10″ in diameter or greater.) But to keep this in perspective, what were we to expect? That’s why they call it a natural disaster. Two major hurricanes crashed through the area in a short period of time, and that tends to break things. I can’t even recall how many homes were destroyed in the hurricanes. Shall we stop building houses?

Yes, I understand that it’s not a perfect comparison, as the environmental impact from losing an oil platform is different, larger and more spectacular than losing a house, right? So let’s take a look at that next point – did this damage result in massive spillage of oil causing “ugly, toxic and expensive problems” along the coast? Again, this from the MMS on the extent of the spills.

A South Florida Sun Sentinel Op-Ed of February 12, 2007, states that it is “less than genuine” to write that the Gulf did not experience substantial oil spills during the recent devastating hurricane season. The Op-Ed was titled “No ‘substantial’ spills after Katrina? Not quite accurate.”

The fact is, by using U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) official standards as a guide the statement is not only true, it is remarkable, especially given the intensity and destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

They go on to list some fairly remarkable numbers. There were a total of 125 reported incidents of oil spillage from rigs, platforms and pipelines. “Those spills did not occur due to loss of control of the producing wells.” The MMS defines a “major spill” as one where 2,381 or more barrels of oil are lost. None of the incidents qualifed as a “major spill” and in fact, a grand total of only 16,302 barrels were lost from those 125 spills. On top of that, the oil that was lost didn’t come from equipment failures in the rigs. As per the report, “Oil losses were mostly limited to the oil stored on platforms that were damaged or oil contained in individual segments of pipelines that were damaged.”

I will concede that among the lessons learned from the hurrices is that we may want to revisit regulations regarding offshore platforms in terms of how much oils can be “stored” on them at any given time and how secure such storage is. Losing any oil into the ocean is certainly undesirable, but how much of a spill was that in reality?

According to a report on “Oil in the Sea” from the National Academy of Sciences (1995), far more oil enters the ocean from natural, underwater seeps than from offshore production platforms. In fact, the seeps introduce about 1700 barrels of oil a day into U.S. marine waters, which is about 150 times the amount from oil and gas activities.

The last portion of the argument speculates that McCain’s position on domestic oil production may hurt him in Florida. As I’ve said in the past, Floridians traditionally maintained a fairly unified front against offshore drilling, based largely on concerns over potential impacts on tourism and environmental dangers. But when gas hit four dollars a gallon, the tune began to change rapidly. If it hits five dollars, they’ll be loading up rowboats with pick axes and heading out to sea themselves. This may explain why the most recent poll of polls shows McCain enjoying an average lead in the sunshine state.

What frustrates me the most over this debate is when my green oriented friends (and I do consider them friends and allies) who are pushing for renewable energy, treat any mention of domestic oil production or nuclear power as the ultimate evil. Believe it or not, we’re all on the same team! We want clean, renewable energy as a permanent, long term solution too! But we’re not there yet, and frankly, we’d like to keep the lights on and the heat available until we do get there. You won’t find me fighting against any source of clean, green energy. The more the better and sooner rather than later. I look forward to the day when we need absolutely zero fossil fuels to power our nation, but until we get that fully developed and implemented, we still need energy. Oil production and nuclear energy are things we have the ability to do now.

And I don’t oppose reducing demand. I’m doing my part! I’ve replaced all my bulbs with CFBs. I’ve hunted down and shut off every vampire drain in the house. My wife and I both work at home and our car now barely leaves the house three times per week.

Everyone who supports domestic drilling and nuclear as medium term solutions to bridge this gap are not a bunch of cigar chomping Daddy Warbucks figures, praying for a China Syndrome meltdown to draw attention away from the fact that we’re clubbing polar bears to death with the corpses of dead baby harp seals while we munch on a bucket of spotted owl fritters. We’re all actually heading in the same direction toward a common goal. We just have a few differences of opinion on how to get there.

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