The Environmental Impacts of Offshore Oil Drilling

By Rose, Mary Annette | The Technology Teacher, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Environmental Impacts of Offshore Oil Drilling


Rose, Mary Annette, The Technology Teacher


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Stephen L. Baird's article in the November 2008 issue of The Technology Teacher describes a contemporary debate about opening more U.S. land and coastal regions to oil and gas exploration and production (E&P). While Baird's thesis--"informed and rational decisions can be reached through the understanding of how complex technological systems can impact the environment, our economy, our politics, and ultimately our culture" (p. 13)--epitomizes the goal of a technologically literate citizen, his article is a stark contradiction to this call for understanding. His one-sided argument is built upon public opinion driven by consumer demand for cheap energy, economic trade imbalance, and politics. Baird fails to connect the offshore oil and gas E&P to the toxins and greenhouse gases these technological processes release to the marine environment and the atmosphere. Decades of empirical evidence indicates that all stages of offshore oil and gas activity have consequences for the health and survivability of marine plants and animals, humans, and our planet.

In the following, I counter Baird's proposition that "environmental arguments no longer add up" (p. 14) by identifying a few of the impacts of offshore oil E&P on the environment. My hope is that this analysis will better prepare teachers to foster the development of critical-thinking skills in their students. These skills are prerequisite to assessing the impacts of technology upon the environment and society (Standards 5 and 13 of Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology, ITEA, 2000/2002/2007) and essential for making environmentally sustainable choices.

Technology Assessment

When we ask our students to assess the impacts of technology, we ask them to engage in a process of inquiry, a cognitive journey of questioning assumptions, hypothesizing, gathering and reviewing evidence and trends, and testing their hypotheses against the body of evidence. This process, known as Technology Assessment (TA), refers to an examination of the potential or existing risks and consequences of developing, adopting, or using a technology. TA begins by bounding the study to identify time horizons, impact zones, stakeholders, and a host of relevant technical and environmental information. Tools, such as cross-impact analysis, mathematical models, and regression analysis, are used to analyze this data and to predict outcomes and risks associated with possible decisions. TA results in a list of "if/then" statements, options, tradeoffs, or alternative future scenarios, which decision makers use to inform policies, make investments, and plan for the future.

Nature of Petroleum (Hydrocarbons)

To examine environmental impacts, we should begin by looking at the nature of crude oil (petroleum). Petroleum is a fossil fuel that forms from the remains of prehistoric vegetation and animals as a result of millions of years of heat and pressure. It is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, several minor constituents (e.g., sulfur), and trace metals (e.g., chromium). The chemical composition of crude oil varies by the age of the geologic formation from which it came. When crude oil is released into the environment, biological, physical, and chemical processes (referred to as weathering) alter the oil's original characteristics (Milton, Lutz, & Shigenaka, 2003). Lighter oils tend to be volatile, reactive, and highly flammable, while heavier crudes tend to be tarry and waxy and contain cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and other toxic substances.

Offshore Oil Exploration and Production

One challenge for offshore (waters beyond three miles from the shoreline) E&P operators is to control the dynamic changes in temperature and pressures when drilling into rock formations located deep beneath the ocean. As depths increase, the pressure of drilling fluids (muds) is used to counter the deep-sea pressures related to depth and the pockets of high-pressure and high-temperature (HPHT) gases. …

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