Key Vocabulary: continental shelf, hydraulic drill, crude oil, oil rig, coast, ecosystem, produced water, drilling muds
Next Generation Science Standards:
Last month, the Trump administration unveiled a plan to allow offshore drilling in more than 90% of US coastal waters. Over the next 5 years, parcels of the continental shelf will be leased out to gas companies to begin extracting oil from underneath the ocean floor. Government officials claim the new policy will allow America to be more energy independent and less reliant on foreign oil. However, expanding offshore drilling could pose long-term environmental and economic risks.
What is offshore drilling?
Offshore drilling is a process by which oil is extracted from underneath the ocean floor from a floating platform called a rig. Drilling operations are performed several miles from shore on the continental shelf, where the ocean floor is more shallow than it is further out to sea as the continental crust slopes down to a deep ocean plain. A hydraulic drill is sent down to the seabed, where it bores through hundreds of meters of rock to access oil trapped underground. Ocean water then is used to generate pressure and bring the oil to the platform at the surface. Offshore drilling in America has been in practice for over 100 years, with 1 in 6 gallons of gasoline in the US was refined from offshore oil.
So who decides on where offshore drilling is allowed? The US Department of the Interior (DOI) manages all federally owned land and waterways. Some areas, such as national parks and monuments, are only for recreational use. However, the DOI also manages the natural resources of national forests and coastal waters as well. The idea is that the federal government is preserving these areas for the long-term, sustainable use of all current and future citizens. The Obama administration had protected about 90% of the continental shelf from offshore drilling, but all that could be about to change. Secretary Ryan Zinke, who heads the Department of the Interior, announced that 47 offshore parcels will be leased out to private companies to extract undersea oil between 2019 and 2024.
The new policy could be a huge opportunity for oil companies. However, there has been a lot of pushback from environmental groups. In addition to creating a threat to almost all coastal ecosystems, Zinke has been accused of politicizing the new rules. Areas off the coast of Florida were originally included for offshore drilling but has since been taken off the list. Rick Scott, the current governor of Florida, is likely running for Senate in 2018. Being able to say that he helped preserve Florida’s coast for the environment and tourism could help Scott as he campaigns for higher office. While the governors of nearly every coastal state have pushed back on Zinke, there have been no other exemptions.
While the change in policy may mean more money for oil companies, opening up so much of the coast to offshore drilling comes with serious risks to the environment. The biggest danger, of course, comes from oil spills. During an exploratory drill in 2010, natural gas exploded on the Deepwater Horizon platform about 50 miles south of the Louisiana coast, causing the rig collapse into the ocean. As the platform sank, the pipe that brought oil to the surface began to leak. The blowout preventer, which should have closed the well in case of such an emergency, failed, filling the Gulf with an oil slick that could be seen from space
After nearly 6 months, the leak was finally fixed, but not after over 200 million gallons of oil were spilled into the ocean. The contaminated water killed thousands of dolphins, sea turtles, birds, fish and other marine animals. Hundreds of people who worked in the cleanup efforts were also exposed to toxic chemicals. It was this disaster that prompted the Obama administration to shut down any expansion of offshore drilling. Deepwater Horizon’s operator, British Petroleum (BP), paid nearly $20 billion for their part in the spill. The Gulf shore, which relies heavily on crab, shrimp, and oyster fishing has yet to recover, evidence that the ecosystem is still reeling from the disaster nearly a decade later.
However, oil spills aren’t the only environmental risk offshore drilling poses. Regular operations of offshore drills create a lot of pollution. As the drill operates, fluid gets trapped underground and mixes with toxic chemicals. This is called produced water, and it is brought to the surface as the oil and gas are pumped to the platform, contaminating the ocean. The oil rigs operating in the Cook Inlet in Alaska generate about 2 billion gallons of produced water each year, containing about 70,000 gallons of oil. Additionally, mud from the seafloor is used to lubricate and cool the drill bit as it works. These drilling muds also become polluted, releasing toxic chemicals that affect marine life.
Even exploring for new oil reserves can cause major environmental damage. To find oil trapped below the ocean floor, prospectors fire air guns across the seabed. Changes in rock vibration let explorers know the location of these reserves, but it also sends strong shock waves through the water that can damage the hearing of fish and marine mammals. Additionally, more drilling muds and fluids are discharged when looking for oil because the wells are drilled slower, deeper, and larger in diameter. This waste usually gets dumped in the ocean instead of being brought back up to the platform. While offshore drilling does allow access to a lot of untapped oil reserves, it takes a heavy toll on the natural environment.
Is offshore drilling worth it?
Even if the environmental concerns weren’t enough to deter companies from building new offshore rigs, there are plenty of economic factors that make offshore drilling a risky business venture. As noted above, accessing offshore oil is complicated. As a result, it’s 12-15 times more expensive to refine than oil drilled out of land-based wells. Furthermore, oil prices are near historic lows. In the summer of 2008, crude oil was nearly $150 a barrel. As of this writing, it’s valued around $60 a barrel. OPEC, which coordinates oil production in 14 countries, is cutting its supply to try and increase the market price for oil. With oil prices so low and the cost of offshore drilling so high, companies may not make as much money on offshore projects as they previously thought.
Additionally, the world economy is changing. To mitigate the worse effects of climate change, most countries are investing in wind, solar, and other renewable sources for their energy needs. China, the second biggest economy in the world, is rapidly moving away from burning fossil fuels. It will take another 5-10 years to get oil harvested from US coastal waters to market, at which point the demand could be a lot lower than it is today, giving gas companies a much smaller return on their investment.
The expansion of offshore drilling in the United States could put a lot of our coasts at risk for environmental disaster with uncertain benefits. Gas companies may build offshore rigs to harvest oil, but it may only result in a lot pollution and little economic reward.