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Originally published in Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine
TO DRILL OR NOT TO DRILL
Anglers are suffering from high fuel prices, but is offshore drilling the answer?
By Capt. John McMurray
Despite a recent drop in the price of crude, dockside fuel in my area remains just under $5 a gallon. Undoubtedly, such prices are affecting anglers, perhaps more so than most, and it’s not just those anglers who own boats. Reverberations are apparent across the board. Lifting a 27 year moratorium on offshore drilling has been touted as a solution, yet whether such action would bring down prices is unclear. What is clear is that there is significant risk involved and anglers could have much to lose.
In 1969, a blowout on a drilling rig off the coast of California gushed 3 million gallons of oil into the waters off Santa Barbara, spreading across 800 miles of ocean and covering approximately 35 miles of coastline. The resulting images of oil-soaked birds and seals arguably spawned modern day environmentalism. By 1981 a moratorium on offshore drilling was in place. The ban was affirmed by executive orders signed by the first President Bush in 1990 and extended by President Clinton in 1998. Even the current President Bush supported the ban until recently, when he publically revoked it in July, but that means nothing unless Congress votes to lift its ban.
A recent poll shows two thirds of Americans are now in favor of lifting the ban, although such results shouldn’t be taken at face value. "It depends on how you ask the question" said US Senator Robert Mendez, "If you ask, "Do you support drilling in order to lower gas prices,' people will say "yes.' Of course, that implies drilling will lower gas prices."
Indeed, drilling may not lower prices significantly. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are 17.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil offshore. This could increase crude oil production about 7%. Based on the country’s fuel consumption standards, this would be enough to fuel the US for about 2˝ years.
Randall Luthi, director of the Minerals Management Service, says the 18-million gallon estimate is "extremely conservative, because it's been 20 or 30 years since we've had the opportunity to look and see what's there." The survey estimates were made using old data from outdated equipment, and some data were collected before Congress imposed the moratorium. Indeed, there have been major advances in technology and drilling techniques, thus proponents argue that there could be much more oil available.
It would have to be an extraordinary amount to make a dent in a massive global market, and it’s generally agreed upon that it would be around 10 years before that oil started entering the economy. Companies must procure equipment, obtain permits, and conduct the necessary exploration. According to the US Department of Energy, offshore drilling would not have a significant impact on domestic oil production or prices before 2030. And offshore leasing wouldn't even begin before 2012.
Some economists argue that in the short term, oil prices could go down slightly if Congress lifts its moratorium, because the market would factor in the prospect of additional oil supplies later on. Yet, increased American production would not mean long-term lower prices because oil is a global commodity and the price is set by global supply and demand. "Suppose the US produced all its oil domestically," said Robert Kaufmann, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. "Do you think oil companies would sell oil to US consumers for one cent less than they could get from French consumers?” Kaufmann also notes that by the time any additional offshore oil got to market, much of it would merely offset losses from the depletion of current oil fields. Meanwhile, oil producing nations can easily keep supply constant by limiting capacity if they know the United States is adding more. "There's nothing on the supply side that we can really do to disrupt OPEC's ability to influence prices," says Kauffman. In fact, since President Bush took office in 2000, the number of wells in federally-leased areas has increased exponentially, but gas prices have doubled during that same time.
Perhaps the most notable advocate of offshore drilling, Senator John McCain, who was opposed to offshore drilling until recently, said that lifting the offshore drilling ban would provide only a “psychological boost.”
While greatly improved technology has decreased the likelihood of a major spill, such drilling still possesses a credible threat to marine and coastal environments. There are hundreds of thousands of documented "small" spills in areas used for oil drilling. In one Mineral Management Service study of a proposed drilling site it was predicted that over the next 40 years there could be up to 870 spills of 2,000 gallons or less - that's over 1 million gallons from just one site.
Between 1981 and 2005, 187 large oil spills on the continental shelf dumped more than 2,100 gallons each into the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes Rita and Katrina alone resulted in 125 spills, totaling 685,000 gallons. But even this is parsing things too finely. According to the Coast Guard over 8 million gallons of oil was spilled when you count the pipes, tank farms and other storage facilities that were linked to the Gulf's offshore oil industry.
Furthermore, studies have shown that resident fish found around oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico have high concentrations of mercury and heavy metals due to the use of to drill “muds” used to cool and lubricate the drill bit. Once they are exhausted, large volumes of spent product are discharged directly into the ocean. Each well produces, on average, 180,000 gallons of mud and cuttings. These discharges often contain toxic materials which bioaccumulate in the ocean food chain.
Then, there is also the issue of seismic testing. The initial exploratory phase of offshore drilling involves the discharge of thousands of high-intensity blasts from powerful “airguns”, creating a strong shockwave through the ocean. Seismic exploration has been associated with mass strandings and resulting mortality of whales and other marine mammals, with reported decreased fish catches in the impacted region.
Offshore drilling also draws bustling ports, pipelines, petrochemical plants and other infrastructure that can replace traditional coastal communities and disrupt natural coastal ecosystems. Large wetland losses were sustained as a result of oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico and fishing ports were replaced by large polluting industrial sites.
Indeed, drilling platforms provide fish-attracting structure on an otherwise barren bottom. Such platforms have done wonders for the offshore fishing off of Louisiana. But given the fact that even drilling proponents concede it will have little effect on prices at the pump, is it worth the risks?