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The End of National Oceans Month and Our Attempt to Answer Questions About Offshore Drilling

June 30, 2010

When we announced that we decided to celebrate National Oceans Month by devoting all of our June posts to the ocean, we asked our facebook fans what they wanted to read about. We kind of hoped they’d say they wanted to learn more about killer whales or tunicates or something similarly fun and easy. They didn’t. In fact, one of our favorite fans made a doozy of a request, asking us to write:

“A run down on off shore drilling… Who is doing it, where, how, and what are the “normal” impacts? And of course, what can we do when the impact is catastrophic?! What other activities out there carry this level of potential risk to the environment?”

Wow. Those are fantastic questions—questions that we’d love to know the answers to—but umm, those are big questions. You know we don’t get paid for this, right?

So we did what any other self-respecting time-crunched science blogger would do: We hoped that some other self-respecting time-crunched science blogger had already answered these tough questions.

Here’s what we found:

According to a post on The Swordpress, there are currently 3,579 active oil rig platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. 3,319 platforms have been removed from the Gulf and 123 more platforms have been proposed. While most of the Gulf of Mexico oil rigs are in relatively shallow water (less than 1,000 feet), there are quite a few at 5,000 feet (the depth of the Deepwater Horizon) or deeper.

from The Swordpress

To really get a feel for the speed and volume of oil rig development in the Gulf of Mexico, check out this cool animation from Swordpress:

Who’s doing the offshore drilling? That’s a lot harder to answer. The website RIGZONE has a list of 244 offshore rigs (along with each rig’s “manager”) in the Gulf of Mexico here. Scanning this list left me with a couple questions: 1) 244? I thought there were 3,579 active rigs in the Gulf. How many friggin’ rigs are there? 2) Who names these things? And 3) Why isn’t Deepwater Horizon on this list?

What are the “normal” impacts of offshore drilling? According to MMS (now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement), they’re negligible.

The Pew Environmental Group, however, has a different opinion:

“Along with offshore oil and gas production comes hazardous marine pollution below the surface of the ocean. In its lifetime, a single oil well discharges into the ocean an estimated 1,500 – 2,000 tons of waste material into the ocean, and a single offshore production platform often contains dozens of wells. During the production process, toxic “drilling mud,” is used for lubrication and then must be disposed of. Along with mud waste are drill cuttings – tiny bits of ground rock that often contain petroleum hydrocarbons. Piles of drill cuttings can accumulate on the ocean floor around a platform, causing ecological harm by “smothering organisms, by direct toxic effect of the drilling waste, and by anoxic conditions caused by microbial degradation of the organic components in the waste.” Finally, another byproduct of offshore drilling is “produced water:” contaminated seawater that is brought up from a well along with oil and gas, often tainted with benzene, zinc, arsenic, and radioactive materials.” –Offshore Drilling and Ocean Impacts Factsheet

What can we do when the impacts are catastrophic? Obviously, no one (other than Kevin Costner, perhaps) has a clue how to clean up this mess, but there’s really no need to worry about such a trivial thing. According to the Exploration Plan BP submitted to MMS for the Deepwater Horizon rig and another Exploration Plan BP submitted for another offshore rig in the Gulf of Mexico (one that MMS approved on May 6, 2010—16 days into the current spew), a blowout wouldn’t be such a big deal.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

“The MMS became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed on May 5, 2010, that it exempted BP’s offshore drilling plan from environmental review by using a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act meant only to apply to projects with no, or minimal, negative effects such as construction of outhouse and hiking trails. The controversy deepened when it was revealed that MMS exempts hundreds of dangerous offshore oil drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico every year.

Two of the newly approved—and environmentally exempted—drilling operations were awarded to BP  despite the fact that the new plans are based on the exact same false assertions about oil rig safety and the improbability of environmental damage even of oil spill occurs.”

BP Exploration Plan, Mississippi Canyon Area, 
Approved April 6, 2009 
(this is the one that exploded) BP Exploration Plan, Green Canyon Area, 
Approved May 6, 2010
“2.7 Blowout Scenario – A scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this EP.” “II.J. Blowout Scenario – Information not required for activities proposed in this Initial Exploration Plan.”
“14.5 Alternatives – No alternatives to the proposed activities were considered to reduce environmental impacts.” “VI. Alternatives – No alternatives to the proposed activities were considered to reduce environmental impacts.”
“14.6 Mitigation Measures – No mitigation measures other than those required by regulation and BP policy will be employed to avoid, diminish or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources.” “VII. Mitigation Measures – No mitigation measures other than those required by regulation will be employed to avoid, diminish, or eliminate potential impacts on environmental resources.”
“14.7 Consultation – No agencies or persons were consulted regarding potential impacts associated with the proposed activities.” “VIII. Consultation – No agencies or persons were consulted regarding potential impacts associated with the proposes activities. Therefore, a list of such entities has not been provided.”
“14.3 Impacts on Proposed Activities – The site-specific environmental conditions have been taken into account for the proposed activities and no impacts are expected as a result of these conditions.” “IV. Impacts on Proposed Activities – The proposed well locations were evaluated for any seafloor and subsurface geological and manmade features and conditions that may adversely affect operations. No impacts are expected from site-specific environmental conditions.”
“14.2.3.2 Wetlands – An accidental oil spill from the proposed activities could cause impacts to wetlands. However, due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected.” (p. 45) “III.C.2. Wetlands…Due to the distance from shore and the available oil spill response capabilities, no adverse impacts to wetlands are anticipated as a result of the proposed activities. Activities proposed in the EP will be covered by BP’s Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP).”
“14.2.2.1 Essential Fish Habitat – …In the event of an unanticipated blowout resulting in an oil spill, it is unlikely to have an impact based on the industry wide standards for using proven equipment and technology for such responses, implementation of BP’s Regional Oil Spill Response Plan which address available equipment and removal of the oil spill.” “III.B.11. Essential Fish Habitat…Should a spill occur in the area of a mobile adult finfish or shellfish, the effects would likely be sublethal and the extent of the damage would be reduced to the capability of adult fish and shellfish to avoid a spill, to metabolize hydrocarbons, and to excrete both metabolites and parent compounds. Activities proposed in the EP will be covered by BP’s Oil Spill Response Plan (OSRP).”
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What other activities carry such a potential risk to the environment? Hmmmm….readers, any ideas?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 29, 2010 10:50 am

    It’s amazing how much oil is released in normal day-to-day operations but isn’t even noticed. That bureaucratic checklist is remarkably well ticked without much real action too!

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