Reader Poll: Deep Water Drilling

The BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast is undeniably a pivotal event as our nation debates alternatives to borrowing money from the Chinese to buy oil from the Saudis and their neighbors.

With which devil do we make the next pact?  If you like to drive that Mustang GT, you have to choose your devil.

We had a very short interval to either celebrate or deplore President Obama’s decision to open up new offshore drilling before British Petroleum’s blowout preventer in 5000 feet of water failed to operate, releasing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf each day, making a very big, very embarrassing, horrifying mess.  BP’s mud engineer also failed to operate that day.  For his sake, I hope there is not a hell.

Scientists and engineers devise technological solutions to challenging situations; I like science and technology and I want them to succeed.  But they certainly did not succeed here.

Birds are diving into this oil and dying.  Coral reefs are at risk.  Billions of dollars of marine fishing, shrimping and sport fishing industries are shut down.  Offshore oil leasing and deep water drilling are suspended.  Who can know what the long-term consequences of this spill will be?  Huge is an understatement.

Everyone agrees that importing massive infusions of oil daily is bad.  Many disagree about which alternatives are acceptable.

There are vast quantities of oil and gas off the coasts of the United States.  Developing these assets can reduce our dependency on foreign sources of oil.  This is a good goal.

But, at what cost?  Or, stated differently, what costs are acceptable?

The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece which stated that accidents will happen, they are inevitable, but we should still drill offshore.

A bunch of environmental groups are saying “we told you so” as they rip BP and other offshore exploration and production companies and their contractors.  The total lack of any useful plan for cleanup and control of spills affords even the most extreme critics a defensible basis for harsh criticism.  BP is desperately inventing solutions which should have been on the shelf two decades ago.

Coastal state governors and many business groups are running from Obama and BP and their allies; “we don’t want offshore oil development.”

Industry experts have developed sophisticated technologies, including underwater blowout preventers, remotely controlled robots, redundant systems.  One can conclude that these technologies are equal to an awesome task, and just failed to work on this isolated case, or one might conclude that these technologies may be awe-inspiring but they cannot handle the vagaries of high-pressure undersea oil and gas formations.

Every oil spill eventually disappears.  Damage to birds, fish, otters, economies, beaches, eventually goes away.  Some recovery curves are longer than others, but at some point the tar balls are gone.  The interim costs can be tremendous, but eventually the damage is gone.  Litigation from this spill will continue for the next decade, but memories will fade.

Meanwhile this well might produce 70,000 barrels per day.  Ten or twenty such wells, coupled with energy conservation, could come close to weaning us from foreign sources.

The provocative question, given that there is a national benefit to producing oil and gas from our offshore assets instead of borrowing yuan from Beijing to pay the Saudis, the Libyans, Hugo Chavez and the Yemenis:

Is an oil spill like the present BP spill:

____ an unacceptable cost regardless of how often it happens, and we should stop deepwater drilling?

____ an unfortunate event, but such events are an inevitable cost of developing domestic oil and gas assets, and we can live with one of these every 20 years?

____ the same as above, only every five years?

____ the same as above, only once each year?

No one will find this type of excursion to be acceptable on a recurring basis of one year or five years.

Is this the end of deepwater drilling?  Should it be?

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  1. Please! We must move this discussion from how much we are willing to risk to maintain our dependence on oil to one that considers options of moving AWAY from this addiction. The low hanging fruit of easy oil has already been picked and what remains, moreso as time goes on, is oil that is locked in sand, shale (requiring fracing with arsenic and benzene + 500 other unkown chemicals), under the oceans in deeper and deeper water, or in remote areas like the north slope. Where oh where is the serious pursuit in this country of producing ethanol from cellulose (not corn not surgarcane not soy not feedstock)? 90 percent of the pines in Rocky Mountains from Arizona through Canada are dying from pine beetle. So instead of turning this catastrophe into an ethanol bonanza, those ugly trees stand, silent sentinels to the world we are leaving our children, until they either rot or burn, adding tons of even more carbon into the atmosphere…..

  2. I appreciate your response but can’t let you off the hook quite yet. I have always had a pet peeve about the whole “reduce our dependance on foreign oil” arguement. To be fair, your article stated “foreign sources”. Oil is a globally traded commodity that does not recognize borders. What your response and what I think most people really mean is reducing dependance on Arab oil (Hugo can be included). Perhaps there is merit in that but it is unrealistic in a global economy. To reduce our dependance on foreign oil is to stop buying oil. It makes a strong argument for alternative energy sources. Let me give you just a couple of examples.
    1. You had stated you would rather buy from BP, based in Britain, if you have to buy foreign oil since they have vast holdings in the US. They are negoiating a deal to drill off the coast of Libya. Libya will profit from this. Since you oppose buying from Libya, isn’t buying oil from BP actually profiting Libya?
    2. The US is an exporter of oil. Not much but we are. Would you really support federal legislation to require that ALL oil and gas produced domestically – on land, coastal, Gulf – be only refined and sold in the US. It will drive up prices, doesn’t make economic sense, and will give free market supporters a stroke but it will reduce imports of foreign oil.
    3. In your statement of rather buying from BP than other locations you had listed a couple in Africa. Would that mean we should not buy from Total, Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco? They all have refineries in Africa as does BP. Granted, they are not in Nigeria but we have just seen that BP will profit Libya and where in Africa do we draw the line?
    The bottom line is that to reduce our dependance on “foreign oil” ,as people are fond to say, means we have to develop alternative sources of energy. T. Boone Pickens may be right in promoting more uses of natural gas which we have plenty of domestically but we can’t limit ourselves to that and we need to start now.

  3. Dear Sage Grouse. I’m perplexed. It seems that the environmental community doesn’t want to drill for oil offshore, or onshore for that matter, they don’t like coal (carbon), gas (dangerous fracking fluids), nuclear (the bomb, don’t you know), wind energy (blades kill birds, towers disturb sagegrouse), ethanol (starves the poor), hydropower (salmon spawning), or solar (sterilizes the ground beneath an array). All are bad. All should be banned. Can someone from the environmental community articulate for me a coherent national energy development and sustainability policy that provides for the energy and security needs of this country? Please expound. I’ll check back.

  4. One role of The Sage Grouse is to stimulate discussion about controversial topics. This piece has done that.

    Responding to comments: I do not know if 30,000 deep water wells have been drilled in the Gulf. I doubt it. There are many thousands of shallow water Gulf wells. The Macondo well is not the first blowout. However, Mr. Dunn makes a valid point; many wells have been drilled without this type of problem.

    To Ms. Rogers, I reply: I too drive a Prius. It burns gasoline, which comes only from oil wells. Plug in cars take power from plants which burn natural gas, coal or uranium. Wind energy contributes an insignificant amount of electricity. Yes, the Prius burns less gasoline than the Mustang GT, but it still burns gasoline. Choose your devil.

    To Mr. Young: I would rather buy “foreign” oil from a company headquarterd in Britain with vast (Amoco) assets in North America than from Libya, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Venezuela or Nigeria.

    The Sage Grouse

  5. As I understand the situation, some 30,000 deep-water wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Of these, only one has “blown”. The odds are, therefore, 30,000:1 against such an event. I’m sure a betting person would take those odds in a moment. More importantly, what have we learned from this accident? Clearly, BP wasn’t prepared for such an event (and with 30,000:1 odds against such an event, perhaps they can’t be blamed for such an oversight). Nevertheless, oil producers who drill in deep water must be prepared for a blow out, even though the odds make it very unlikely that a blow out will occur. If there is any “fortunate” aspect of the blow-out, it is that it happened in warm water (vs. cold northern water) and that the petroleum is “light” instead of “heavy” and will therefore evaporate sooner.

  6. I drive a Toyota Prius; and I would love to drive a plug-in hybrid/all electric vehicle.

    Please try telling the truth, for a refreshing change.

  7. Just watched BBC’s “Planet Earth. They highlighted the enormous migration of snow geese to the arctic, in summer. When they mentioned that the geese winter in the Gulf, I felt a blow to the gut. What will happen when they return this fall?

  8. an unacceptable cost regardless of how often it happens, and we should stop deepwater drilling

    We will be the better for it in the long term.

  9. I need someone to explain to me how buying from British Petroleum, headquartered in London, will reduce our dependance on “foreign” oil. I am also curious to know if 100% of oil recoverd by British Petroleum from their wells is refined in the US.