Painfully high vehicle- and jet-fuel prices are propelling popular demands for extracting the estimated 18 billion barrels of petroleum that rest beneath America’s coastal waters. After rescinding previous executive-branch objections, President Bush said on July 14, “the only thing standing between the American people and these vast oil resources is action from the U.S. Congress.” Capitol Hill Democrats claim offshore drilling poses unacceptable ecological risks. This is yet another overblown worry.
Democrats and other environmental naysayers cite the 80,000 barrels that spilled six miles off of Santa Barbara, California, inundating beaches and aquatic life. This hydrocarbon Hindenburg haunts the memories of those who witnessed it.
But this genuine catastrophe occurred in January, 1969 — nearly 40 years ago. That era’s drilling technology has gone the way of Flower Power and black-and-white TV. Innovation has boosted the safety and environmental reliability of offshore drilling.
Santa Barbara accelerated oil companies’ efforts to prevent such disasters. Beyond compliance with 17 major permits and 90 different federal regulations, offshore operators frequently conduct accident training and safety exercises. Sensors and other instruments now help platform personnel monitor and handle temperatures and pressures of subsea oil, even as drill bits whirl.
Hurricanes are manageable, since oil lines are capped not at the surface, but at or beneath the ocean floor. Even if oil platforms snapped loose and blew away, industrial seals restrain potentially destructive petroleum hundreds or even thousands of feet below the waves. Thus, 3,050 offshore structures endured Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September, 2005 without environmentally damaging petroleum spills. While 168 platforms and 55 rigs were destroyed or seriously damaged, the oil they pumped remained safely entombed, thanks to heavy underwater machinery. As the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) concluded, “due to the prompt evacuation and shut-in preparations made by operating and service personnel, there was no loss of life and no major oil spills attributed to either storm.”
“The technology of the drilling industry may have improved, but offshore drilling is a dirty business, and it still leads to oil spills due to failed equipment, aberrant weather, or human error on a frequent basis,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) said in July 19’s Houston Chronicle.
Feinstein is correct. U.S. offshore oil drilling is not perfectly tidy. It’s only 99.999 percent clean. Indeed, since 1980 — as MMS figures indicate — 101,997 barrels spilled from among the 11.855 billion barrels of American oil extracted offshore. This is a 0.001 percent pollution rate. While offshore drilling is not 100-percent spotless, this record should satisfy all but the terminally fastidious.
Ironically, in terms of oil contamination, Mother Nature is 95 times dirtier than man. Some 620,500 barrels of oil ooze organically from North America’s ocean floors each year. Compare this to the average 6,555 barrels that oil companies have spilled annually since 1998, according to MMS.