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Offshore Drilling: A Slippery Subject - 01/31/10

Apparently, our local lawmakers don't have enough to do this week to keep Deerfield Beach safe and to make sure the city's roads and infrastructure are in good repair. On Tuesday night, it will consider this item: "A Resolution of the City Commission of the City of Deerfield Beach, Florida, opposing the approval of oil drilling in Florida’s waters in areas other than those already approved for oil leasing and oil exploration."

Noting the importance of the beaches and tourism to Florida and the risk for environmental damage, especially in the Gulf of Mexico; further noting an element of that risk "is the wastewater [that drilling platforms] routinely discharge which contains drilling fluids and heavy metals including mercury;" and finally noting the possible "catastrophic damage" that could occur to offshore drilling rigs by a storm, it is to be resolved:

We strongly encourage all elected officials at the County, State and Federal levels to oppose legislative attempts to allow offshore oil drilling expansion past the areas already approved for pre-leasing, leasing and oil production activities and to take immediate steps to encourage and assist in the development of alternative sources of energy.

The resolution, incidentally, is posted on the consent agenda, implying that there is no debate to be had. By no coincidence, someone will appear on the "written requests" before the formal business starts to speak on the same subject of offshore drilling and to promote a related event along the beach called Hands Across the Sand.

The speaker will be Deerfield resident Kathleen E. Aterno, who also happens to be Florida Director of Clean Water Action (CWA).

CWA is a Washington, D.C-based lobbying group, which was seeded by Ralph Nader's task force on water pollution in the '70's. The group has or has had ties with Friends of the Earth, another lobbying group which has been around for some 40 years. The Washington Post, in 1999, called the FOE the farthest to the political left of mainstream green groups in the U.S. ("From Fringe To Political Mainstream," by Michael Weiskopf, April 19, 1990).

In any event, it was Ms. Aterno who proposed the offshore drilling resolution now before the city commission.

Nobody cherishes the idea of oil drilling platforms off the shores of Deerfield Beach. I don't at least. Ms. Aterno's resolution raises legitimate concerns about oil spills, environmental issues, and hurricane risks.

On the other hand, people don't much like the idea of ever increasing gas prices, dependence on foreign oil, and the implications for national security. The 1.76 billion acres of continental shelf is an attractive area for exploitation of currently untapped sources of oil and natural gas. In fact, a Rasmussen poll conducted in December 2009 found that 68% of U.S. voters believe offshore oil drilling should be allowed. Just 20% opposed drilling for oil off the coast. The poll found that most voters also favored development of alternative energy sources, along with offshore exploration.

Of course, most of the voters surveyed don't live near the coastlines that could be at risk. Suppose, however, that there was an acceptable level of risk for offshore drilling.

Offshore rigs currently stand within 25 miles of Pensacola. There has never been a significant spill. There are still risks, of course, but even some environmentalists admit that improved technology has reduced the threat of pollution in recent years. In fact, while 115 Gulf of Mexico platforms were damaged or destroyed by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, there was little spillage associated with the platforms. One reason is that automatic valves shut off the wells in case of a catastrophe.

The National Research Council states that only two percent of ocean spillage off the U.S. coast comes from offshore oil and gas drilling, while 63% comes from natural seepage and 22% from municipal and industrial waste. Drilling may in fact reduce natural seepage as it has off San Diego because it releases the pressure that drives the oil up through fissures on the ocean bottom.

In the '70's, 3.6 million barrels of oil were spilled in U.S. waters, but it was less than 500,000 barrels in the '90's, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. (Added: For the sake of comparison, the Exxon Valdez, when it ruptured in Prince William Sound in 1989, was carrying 1.26 million barrels of oil and spilled 10.8 million gallons, or about 257,000 barrels, of oil.)

According to an Internet source, most of the areas off the Florida West Coast have never been explored using modern 3D seismic techniques. Thus, how much oil and natural gas could be pumped is unknown. The Department of Energy estimates that new drilling would produce only seven percent more oil by 2030, but industry experts dispute those estimates because we don't really have hard data yet. It could be more or less. Another source claims that the greatest potential in the eastern Gulf is for natural gas production, which is considered an alternative fuel.

Offshore production has been a bustling industry in Louisiana for more than 60 years. In July 2008, it had 172 active platforms producing about 79% of the oil and 72% of the natural gas that comes from offshore in the U.S. There have been upsides and downsides. The state derives $1.5 billion annually in revenues. It also means ports, pipelines, refineries, petrochemical plants, etc. But, land-based operations are also responsible for most of the pollution associated with oil and gas production. (I can also tell you from personal experience, because my earliest political activities were in Louisiana where I went to school, that oil dominates Louisiana politics.)

Like many people, I have mixed feelings. It would be nice if we had cars that ran on water and plastics made from something other than petroleum. Most electricity would be generated by wind, water, fuel cells, and fail-safe nuclear power plants. Unfortunately, this is the real world and most of the technologies which would replace oil are years or decades away.

There are and always will be environmental risks in oil and gas drilling, production, and transportation. There are risks without offshore drilling. How do you think crude oil gets to our shores from the Middle East? How do you think refined products get from Texas to South Florida? Are there acceptable risks and benefits that outweigh the risks?

I'm not saying we start drilling for oil off the end of the pier or even three or five miles out. I'm suggesting that the city commission not rubber stamp this resolution. The pros and cons need much greater deliberation than one supportive speech by a lobbyist.