The Santa Barbara disaster of 1969 resulted from a blowout at an offshore platform that spilled 100,000 barrels of crude oil — 4.2 million gallons in all. It marked a turning point in the oil industry’s expansion, shelving any chance for drilling along most of the nation’s coastlines and leading to the creation of dozens of state and federal environmental laws.
Is history about to repeat itself in the Gulf of Mexico?
It may seem so this weekend. Emotions are running high as an oil slick washes over the Gulf Coast’s fragile ecosystem, threatening fisheries, shrimp farmers and perhaps even Florida’s tourism industry. Thousands could see their livelihoods ruined. A cleanup could take years.
Beyond railing at BP, the company that owns the well now spewing oil, some environmental groups have demanded an end to offshore exploration and urged President Obama to restore a moratorium on drilling. The White House has already said no new drilling permits will be approved until the causes of the accident are known. Additional government oversight seems inevitable.
But whatever the magnitude of the spill at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, it is unlikely to seriously impede offshore drilling in the Gulf. The country needs the oil — and the jobs.
Much has changed since 1969. The nation’s demand for oil has surged, rising more than 35 percent over the past four decades, while domestic production has declined by a third. Oil imports have doubled, and the United States now buys more than 12 million barrels of oil a day from other countries, about two-thirds of its needs.
The politics have also changed. Republicans want to boost domestic oil production to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. High on the Democratic agenda is reducing carbon emissions that cause global warming. To bridge the gap, the White House has backed a compromise that would expand domestic offshore exploration in exchange for Republican support for its climate policy.
There is another reason why offshore drilling is likely to continue. Most of the big new discoveries lie deep beneath the world’s oceans, including in the Gulf of Mexico. For the oil companies, these reserves are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and represent the industry’s future.
Since the 1980s, the Gulf has turned into a vast laboratory for the industry to test and showcase its most sophisticated technology — rivaling, the industry says, anything used for space exploration. This is where oil companies found ways to drill in ever-deeper water, where they developed bigger platforms to pump even more oil, where they pioneered the use of unmanned submarines and elaborate underwater systems straight out of a science fiction novel.
Some of the newest floating rigs can drill in more than 10,000 feet of water. They can stay in the same position for weeks, even as they sustain 40-foot waves, thanks to satellite positioning systems and tiny propellers below the hull. Hundreds of miles away, engineers sitting in control rooms in Houston monitor the drilling in real time.
All this has helped to turn the Gulf of Mexico into the fastest growing source of oil in the United States. The Gulf accounts for a third of the nation’s domestic supplies, or 1.7 million barrels a day, mostly from the deepwater region.
A similar expansion is happening around the world, most notably off the coast of Brazil, where billions of barrels of oil reserves have been discovered. Big discoveries have also been made off the coasts of Ghana and Sierra Leone by Anadarko Petroleum, using technology pioneered in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is a leading explorer.
This latest spill could have the same pronounced impact on public policy as the Exxon Valdez accident in 1989, which dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into the sensitive waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. After that spill, tankers were forced to follow more stringent safety measures, and the owner of a rig or vessel was made legally responsible for cleaning up a spill. But tankers still roam the oceans.
Some in the environmental movement believe that public outrage will also push the government to aggressively develop alternatives to oil. They argue that the risks of oil production far outweigh the benefits.
“This is potentially a watershed environmental disaster,” said Wesley P. Warren, the director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This one is a gigantic wake up call on the need to move beyond oil as an energy source.”
But developing credible, cheap and abundant alternatives to oil will take many decades, and in the meantime, cars need gasoline and planes need kerosene. The United States is still the world’s top oil consumer by far. Even as China grows, the United States consumes twice as much oil.
Developing fossil fuels has never been risk free. Eleven people were killed when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, and between 2001 and 2007, according to the federal government, 41 people died and 302 were injured in accidents involving oil and gas production on federal lands and waters. There were 356 spills of varying degrees of seriousness.
No one seriously considered ending coal mining after the recent deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, the country’s worst mining disaster in four decades. Instead, there were calls for tougher regulations and oversight in an effort to reduce the risk of extracting the coal that generates half of the nation’s electricity.
In the wake of this Gulf spill, the government almost certainly will tighten oversight and force the industry to rethink its approach to safety in an effort to reconcile offshore production and safe environmental practices.
“We have not yet learned how to manage the challenges associated with energy development,” said Steve Cochran of the Environmental Defense Fund. “We assume our practices are safe, until a disaster strikes. That’s the hubris of mankind.”
But are there acceptable alternatives?
“A fossil-fuel free future isn’t inconceivable but it is decades away,” wrote Samuel Thernstrom, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, on The Times’s Room for Debate blog. “Meanwhile, we can’t drill our problems away, but drilling still has a role to play.”