On March 17, two weeks to the day before President Barack Obama laid out a new plan to expand offshore oil exploration in the United States, a government auction of federally controlled oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Mexico was held at the New Orleans Superdome. It took just a few hours for 77 energy companies to pledge $1.3 billion to the U.S. Treasury to look for oil and natural gas across a 2.4 million-acre expanse of bottomlands 200 miles from shore, and in most cases thousands of feet below the surface.
The lease sale, one of the most lucrative on record, bolstered the Gulf’s global reputation as one of the hottest deepwater oil and gas plays on Earth. The Gulf of Mexico is responsible for a quarter of the 5.5 million barrels of oil produced daily in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy. And of the 1.4 million barrels produced daily in the Gulf, 1.1 million barrels comes from over 100 deep sea production platforms. The Interior Department predicts that by the end of the decade, deep sea production in the Gulf could reach nearly 2 million barrels a day.
Semi-submersible drilling platform
Source: The Economist
Though offshore oil production is dangerous – 165 people died when an offshore platform exploded off the coast of Scotland in 1998; 10 more people were killed in a drilling rig explosion off the coast of Brazil in 2001 – a kind of Titanic syndrome had set in with Gulf coast oil explorers. The high-tech, semi-submersible, nearly $1 billion floating drilling platforms that operated in the deep Gulf waters were seen as too big, too modern, too well-equipped to fail.
Moreover there is so much oil (and natural gas) beneath the deep Gulf bottomlands – 85.9 billion barrels of oil, according to several estimates – and so much money to be made at $70 to $100 a barrel, that downplaying the risks made economic and political sense. Federal drilling permits obtained by developers normally did not require extensive and time-consuming analysis of the environmental risks, the government has acknowledged.
On April 20, an explosion and fire aboard Transoceans’ Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, which was operating under contract to BP, killed 11 workers. The accident provided the latest unmistakable evidence of the workplace hazards of deep sea exploration. Then two days later, on Earth Day’s 40th anniversary, the Deepwater Horizon sank and simultaneously produced an oil slick that the government says is growing by about 5,000 barrels of oil daily.
By any measure, the Gulf spill has reawakened the nation and magnified the human, environmental, and political consequences of oil production, especially from such treacherous places as the deep ocean. But the spill has not yet made clear what, if anything, the nation is prepared to do in response.
Indeed, the Deepwater explosion and the spreading slick are apt metaphors for an era of striking domestic risks related to energy production and consumption and growing uncertainties about how to reduce them.
Not Santa Barbara, Not 1969
There is no longer much reasoned debate that America’s devotion to fossil fuel, and especially to oil, has contributed to dangerous energy insecurity, rising atmospheric concentrations of climate changing gases, increasing costs, decreasing incomes, and a ferocious national recession. Yet the national response is so different than the January 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, which soaked the beaches with crude oil. That spill produced a momentous national that helped to launch Earth Day and a decade of policy making that cleared the skies and cleaned the waters.
In contrast the Deepwater spill, so far, has produced modest public concern nationally and little more than that.
President Obama on April 30 announced he would suspend his March 31 decision to open new areas to offshore exploration pending a full investigation of the Deepwater accident. In the Senate, where a climate and energy bill has been delayed because of partisan infighting, lawmakers debated whether the Gulf spill would 1) break or 2) cement the deadlock.
It is clear the United States needs a new energy policy. The devastating spill has heightened awareness on Capitol Hill to the dangers of U.S. dependence on oil. Democratic Senators Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Bill Nelson of Florida held a news conference this week to alert their colleagues that including additional offshore oil exploration has no place in a comprehensive climate and energy bill.
Halting the Spill
In the Gulf, BP says it is moving as fast as it can to plug the well and on Wednesday the company announced that it had stemmed one of three leaks in the pipe that once attached the well to the Deepwater drilling platform. Fishing in the coastal waters, some of the most productive fishing grounds on the planet, has been suspended. Meanwhile the governors of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida expressed concern about the expanding spill, which was drifting closer to their shores.
|Production Data by Year|
(WD > 1000 Ft)
|Total GOM OCS Production||% of Total Production|
|Year||Oil, STB||Gas, MCF||Oil, STB||Gas, MCF||Oil||Gas|
|Deepwater Production Increase – Year to Year|
|Year||% Increase, Oil||% Increase, Gas|
|1985 to 1986||-9.3||9.01|
|1986 to 1987||-10.||19.9|
|1987 to 1988||-23.||-13.|
|1988 to 1989||-22.||-16.|
|1989 to 1990||21.3||-4.3|
|1990 to 1991||88.4||91.5|
|1991 to 1992||62.9||49.3|
|1992 to 1993||-1.4||37.4|
|1993 to 1994||13.6||33.0|
|1994 to 1995||32.0||13.5|
|1995 to 1996||30.8||53.7|
|1996 to 1997||50.2||37.2|
|1997 to 1998||46.7||46.8|
|1998 to 1999||41.3||50.8|
|1999 to 2000||20.4||18.1|
|2000 to 2001||16.3||17.9|
|2001 to 2002||10.5||9.21|
|2002 to 2003||0.45||10.7|
|2003 to 2004||-0.6||-2.0|
|2004 to 2005||-6.4||-14.|
|2005 to 2006||4.82||-8.0|
|2006 to 2007||-3.8||-6.1|
|2007 to 2008||-5.3||-2.8|
|2008 to 2009||46.3||9.64|
|Average (through 2008)||16.7||18.3|
Source: Minerals Management Service
— Keith Schneider