Offshore Oil, Onshore Debate Operators of Drilling Rigs like Those in Gulf of Mexico Claim a Clean Record in Tapping Rich Subsea Petroleum Pockets in US Waters, but They Face Strong Environmental Opposition to Oil Exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf

By Scott Pendleton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 1992 | Go to article overview

Offshore Oil, Onshore Debate Operators of Drilling Rigs like Those in Gulf of Mexico Claim a Clean Record in Tapping Rich Subsea Petroleum Pockets in US Waters, but They Face Strong Environmental Opposition to Oil Exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf


Scott Pendleton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


NINETY miles south of New Orleans, a supply boat pulls alongside a jackup rig, the Glomar High Island IV. A crane operator on the rig lowers a rope basket to the wave-tossed boat. As waiting roughnecks grab hold, the operator hoists them several hundred feet through a ripping March wind and lands the fresh crew members safely on the rig's deck.

Standing nearby is Russell Luigs, chairman of Global Marine Inc., the company that owns the High Island IV. Mr. Luigs explains to visiting reporters that the crew is drilling in search of natural gas below a long-depleted oil field. As he strides around the massive metal machinery, Luigs points out that the advanced-design rig can operate with "zero discharge" into the waters below.

And he means zero. At a drill site in fish-rich Mobile Bay off Alabama, Luigs found "one-half tablespoon rainwater" entered in the rig's Inadvertent Discharge Log. On another occasion, a roughneck who tossed a wadded-up package of cigarettes over the side was instantly fired.

And yet - despite rigid procedures and new technology that enable the offshore industry to tread lightly on the subsea environment; despite the fact that drilling and production rank far below municipal waste, urban runoff, natural seeps, and air pollution as sources of oil in the ocean; despite the employment, trade balance, and national security benefits to the United States of producing its own energy - the political distance between the oil industry's drill bits and the nation's remaining offshore petroleum wealth continues to lengthen. Legislation now before Congress would postpone exploring much of the outer continental shelf (OCS) until after the year 2000.

The pending energy bill might even require taxpayers to buy back leases for which oil companies already paid $900 million. The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental lobbying groups write of those lease sites in superlative terms. Bristol Bay, Alaska, is "the single most important region of the entire OCS for marine mammals, endangered species, and fishery resources." The Florida Keys and Everglades are "unique and extra- ordinarily sensitive." Offshore North Carolina is "the most productive benthic environment ever found off the East Coast."

So when do we drill? The oil industry wants to know. Its OCS drilling and production activities have spilled scarcely a barrel of oil since the 1969 blowout off Santa Barbara, Calif., according to the Minerals Management Service (MMS), a federal agency in charge of offshore oil leasing.

In that accident, the operators quickly killed the well. But reservoir pressure forced up to 70,000 barrels of oil around the bottom of the pipe and up through cracks in the ocean floor - the first and only time that has happened. A simple change in procedure - cementing the well's steel casing into place more often during drilling - has made a recurrence impossible, the industry insists.

Roger McManus, a biologist who heads the Center for Marine Conservation, acknowledges that the industry's pride in its offshore environmental record is justified.

"Yes, the risk is not huge," Mr. McManus says, "but is it a risk you want to take?" The oil industry, he adds, "has never learned to recognize and respect other people's values in the offshore environment. The industry has largely insisted that they can drill anywhere they want to, and repeatedly - through Congress and through administrative action - have found out that other people disagree."

Indeed, Luigs insists the High Island IV could work safely anywhere. However, he says, slant-drilling technology allows the rig to steer clear of delicate underwater environments like coral reefs.

Oil companies like to point out that, barrel for barrel, imported oil causes 20 times as much pollution as oil produced from the OCS. …

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Offshore Oil, Onshore Debate Operators of Drilling Rigs like Those in Gulf of Mexico Claim a Clean Record in Tapping Rich Subsea Petroleum Pockets in US Waters, but They Face Strong Environmental Opposition to Oil Exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf
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