Oil: From the offshore to onshore, From the deep sea to coral reefs

Last Wednesday, Obama in a very surprising move, unveiled plans for large swaths of the ocean off  the East Coast, eastern Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska to be drilled for oil and gas for the first time. Specifically the plan allows areas from Delaware to central Floria, the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and swath 125 miles off Florida’s coast currently under congressional moratorium, to be opened up to industry.  As a first step, the Obama plan authorizes the Interior Department to start conducting seismic studies to locate potential seafloor deposits.

Why?

Obama stated, ”The bottom line is this: Given our energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs and keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources of renewable, homegrown energy.”  Obama addressed those who will “strongly disagree” with this decision by saying the announcement is part of a broader strategy to move from an economy run on fossil fuel and foreign oil to one that relies on domestic fuels and clean energy. “The only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and long run,” he said. “To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake.”

So is the the appropriate move forward?  Some believe this was Obama’s move to gain further support for a later comprehensive climate and energy bill, i.e. a political opposed to an energy move.  And indeed the strange union of liberal Democrat Barbara Block of California, whose state was spared, and Exxon both heralding Obama’s policy is so strange my laptop is at risk of bursting into flames as I type this.

But what would appear to be a concession to Republicans has only angered some of them.

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, called the announcement a “smokescreen.” ”As usual, the devil is in the details,” Pence said. “Only in Washington, D.C., can you ban more areas to oil and gas exploration than you open up, delay the date of your new leases, and claim you’re going to increase production.” House Natural Resources Committee ranking member Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said the administration “is attempting to pull the wool over our eyes.” ”President Obama’s rhetoric conveys support for increasing American oil and natural gas production, while the reality is he’s proposing a plan that will close more areas to drilling than it opens, and the few areas still available won’t be open for years,” Hastings said.

As can be imagined conservation groups are also angered and not just the ones you might expect, e.g. Greenpeace. Oceana, an organization who in my opinion typically proceeds strategically, thoughtfully, and cautiously, is leading a letter campaign stating

Expanding offshore drilling increases threats to marine habitats and creatures and does nothing to curb harmful carbon emissions; in fact, it increases pollutants in our atmosphere and oceans.  Including offshore drilling in climate change legislation is not only a political compromise – it is compromising the future health of our oceans. Help us reach our goal of 25,000 ocean activists to speak up against offshore drilling.

And, well frankly I can’t agree more.

First, I think the move is politically naive.  The behavior of Republicans during healthcare reform is all you need to consider.  This is the group that voted no to everything in healthcare reform, even as parts were borrowed from R-Mitt Romney’s state insurance plan for Massachusetts.  This is the group that stated they would continue to vote no on everything the Democrats proposed.  Republicans would vote no on a bill stating they were Republicans if the Democrats proposed it.  Republicans have no interest in bipartisan progression.  Is opening vast swaths of the oceans worth a few Republican votes that Obama doesn’t even need?  What if it leads to a loss of Democratic votes.

Second, I think the move is environmentally naive.  It does nothing more than continue our reliance on fossil fuels, perpetuating a cycle of behavior that will ultimately warm, acidify, and pollute our oceans.  At local scales, drilling impacts will greatly threaten the life of the seafloor. And that oil won’t only being going into our big SUV’s to hold our fat American assess, it will end up on our protected marine habitats.  Or maybe Chineses asses and Australian reefs

A Chinese-registered ship carrying coal that ran aground off the coast of northeast Australia was leaking oil Sunday near the Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest coral reef system. The ship, called Shen Neng 1, was carrying about 65,000 tons of coal to China from the port of Gladstone when it ran aground at about 5:10 p.m. Saturday, according to a Queensland state government statement. The vessel was carrying about 950 tons of oil on board and was leaking into the surrounding waters early Sunday, according to the statement. Maritime Safety Queensland has responded to the scene to assess the spill and plan a clean-up. A light aircraft was expected to spray a chemical solution on the oil.

Third, I am not even sure it makes sense economically.

One reason they haven’t is that offshore drilling requires an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars just to find a productive site. Once oil is discovered, offshore rigs used to bring it to the surface cost $1 billion or more. And years would pass before those new rigs could produce their first barrel of oil. Meanwhile, under Obama’s proposal, East Coast states and parts of Alaska would expose valuable shoreline and beach property to the possibility of a disastrous oil spill. Tourism benefits coastal states a lot more than skimpy oil royalties would. Why do you think California opted out of this deal right from the start? America also would be wasting time and money that should be spent on developing alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, cleaner alternative fuels and, yes, nuclear power. While we fiddle, China solidifies its stature as the green energy innovator of the world.

All this leaves me to believe the Republican party and Exxon have kidnapped Obama and put Sarah Palin in an Obama suit.  And as James Werrell writes, “But while “drill, baby, drill” makes a cute catch-phrase, it’s still a dumb idea, no matter who proposes it.”

Dr. M (1605 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.





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5 comments on “Oil: From the offshore to onshore, From the deep sea to coral reefs
  1. The aspect that is not discussed in this debate unfortunately is the geology. The resource estimate is only 4 billion bbls for the entire Atlantic coast … not just one area or prospect, but the WHOLE margin. It is simply not an oil-rich region. I could envision a handful (at most) of big prospects developed over next 20-30 years. On top of that the environmental red tape involved with opening a brand new area will discourage companies from being aggressive. In other words, very little will actually happen, mark my words.

    This isn’t a true concession to Republicans … I think it’s designed as political cover to appear to have attempted to reach out and compromise.

    The day after the drilling was the announcement of most aggressive increase in CAFE standards in a very long time. That policy will actually produce results … the Atlantic prospectivity is simply not looking very good from oil company’s perspective if you actually look at the resource assessments (MMS 2006 is the most up to date I’m aware of).

    The political calculation appears to be to offer up an area that may see very limited actual development. One might argue that that is a misguided approach, but it is a far cry from comparing Obama to Sarah Palin.

  2. BrianR,
    Thanks for the insights. I was planning to do a follow up post that examined how much oil was actually available. But better coming from you. It’s also likely that the new GoM area contains much. By my calculations, the prior Lease Sale 181 in the GoM is only large enough to support 2/3 of the annual need for mobile homes in the U.S. for 15 years. And, the USGS estimates that the total unexplored, offshore global reserve is about 300 billion barrels. So the amount we have not accessed as of yet would last the world 9.5 years (at 84,000,000 barrels a day).

    I hope that you are right that “The political calculation appears to be to offer up an area that may see very limited actual development. “

  3. When I read that the Obama administration was proposing this new oil drilling I immediately wrote to the white house to let them know that this was unacceptable and I was sorrily disappointed in their entire environmental agenda thus far.

    I was an Obama supporter during the last election, but I may have to find a “green” candidate for the next. I’m sick and tired of the environment being the lowest priority for both Democrats and Republicans. Further proof that both parties are in the pockets of corporate america.

    Bill

  4. how much is a 65,00 tonne oil carrier worth full?
    I am completing a report on the value of the Fire Service intervention into a large fire next to an oil storage facility. while a tanker vessel was unloadingf
    Thanks
    Geoff

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