Memory of 1969 disaster colors current oil drilling debate

McClatchy NewspapersJune 21, 2008 

WASHINGTON -- For decades, giant drilling rigs off the Texas and Louisiana coastlines have plumbed the Gulf of Mexico for vast oil and gas riches, creating jobs, bolstering state revenues and perpetuating a vibrant social structure in coastal communities.

To the West, drilling rigs also operate off the Pacific shoreline near Santa Barbara, Calif., but to many residents, they are vile reminders of a 1969 blowout on an offshore rig that spewed a giant oil slick into the Pacific. The ecological disaster contributed to the creation of Earth Day the following year.

"It still has an impact on our consciousness," says Linda Krop, an environmental attorney in Santa Barbara. "You don't see oil on the beach any more but it's very high in people's awareness and their concern about any more development."

The experiences in California and the Gulf Coast states offer contrasting case studies as $4-a-gallon gasoline accelerates calls for vastly expanded offshore drilling to boost U.S. oil and gas supplies. Offshore drilling is currently permitted off four Gulf Coast states, Alaska and a sliver of California but is banned elsewhere in the United States.

President Bush and presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain reopened the national debate over offshore drilling last week by calling on Congress to lift the ban that prohibits new oil and gas production off most of the East and West coasts and a section of the Gulf Coast below Florida.

The proposals generated a fierce push-back from many Democrats and environmental groups, who accused Bush and McCain of being in the pockets of Big Oil.

McCain's rival, Sen. Barack Obama, noted Friday in Jacksonville that McCain had once favored the ban and charged McCain with violating the "bipartisan consensus" that had protected Florida's coastline for decades.

"The politics may have changed, but the facts haven't," Obama said. "Offshore drilling would not lower gas prices today, it would not lower gas prices next year and it would not lower gas prices five years from now.''

Although continued reliance on fossil fuel is increasingly in disfavor because of global warming, there are signs that Americans are becoming more receptive to increased oil and gas production in the United States as gasoline prices go through the roof. A majority of Americans — 57 percent — favor offshore exploration in now-prohibited areas to reduce gas prices, according to a Gallup Poll.

One prominent change of heart came from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who abandoned his support for the ban to advocate exploration of oil and gas off Florida's coastline. The Republican governor has been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate.

"Floridians are suffering," said Crist, who was skewered by Democrats and newspaper editorials for the reversal. "When you're paying over $4 a gallon for gas, you have to wonder whether there might be additional resources to bring that price down."

Floridians have strongly opposed opening Gulf Coast waters to the oil industry, fearing that offshore drilling could hurt the state's pristine beaches and $65 billion-a-year tourism industry. But gasoline costs are clearly having an impact on public sentiments.

Larry White, the executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau on Florida's Gulf Coast, said the area depends on its pristine beaches but is also affected by rising gas prices. He said 70 percent of the area's tourists drive all the way to the Bradenton area -- many of them from Texas.

"I want to protect my beaches," he said. "But if we don't get some relief they're going to say, 'I can't afford to come.' "

Offshore drilling has long been permitted off the other Gulf Coast states -- Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas -- but assessments of the impact differ sharply, depending on the perspective.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups say offshore drilling and coastal pipelines endanger wetlands, marshes and sea life, pollute the water with industrial toxins and pose a constant danger of producing oil spills.

"Increased drilling offshore would really be step backward for us," said Oliver Bernstein, an Austin, Texas-based national deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club.

But Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who oversees offshore lands and is also responsible for oil spill cleanups, says that offshore drilling is an essential part of Texas' oil-based economy and scoffs at assertions of environmental risks.

"I follow this debate and I just shake my head," he said in a telephone interview. "It's amazing how stupid some people can be. There were valid environmental objections to offshore drilling but they were valid 30 years ago."

Revenue from mineral leases in the Gulf of Mexico go into Texas' $25 billion permanent school fund. They generated $51.9 million in fiscal 2007.

At least 120 companies are operating off the four Gulf Coast States that permit offshore drilling, producing roughly 1.3 million barrels of oil a day, about 25 percent of the U.S. domestic production. More than 3,900 platforms are scattered across Gulf Coast waters.

Most of the activity is centered off of Texas and Louisiana, two of the nation's oil-producing giants, each with a rich history of offshore exploration. Consequently, the prospect of increasing offshore production has wide acceptance among state political leaders and rank-and-file citizens.

Offshore wells started sprouting below the two state's shorelines in the 1930s and 1940s, producing generations of workers and oil explorers. Robert Gramling, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and an expert in offshore production, said many workers come from other states since a standard shift is two weeks on and two weeks off.

"We've got 60 years of gradual ramping up of this industry," he said. "There is nobody in business who doesn't know somebody who works offshore or has worked offshore."

Offshore drilling has occurred over several decades around Alaska's vast coast, including Cook Inlet near Anchorage, Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska, and the forbidding Beaufort and Chukchi seas at the top of the state.

The drilling has been hotly controversial at times, and remains so today. In salmon-rich Bristol Bay, the Bush administration has scheduled an offshore lease sale for 2011, even though controversy prompted the government to buy back leases sold in the bay in 1988.

In the Arctic, the local government, Native whale hunters and environmental groups have at least temporarily blocked Shell's offshore drilling plans. The company on Friday announced it was giving up on hopes to begin drilling this year in the Beaufort Sea as the issue remains tied up in a federal appeals court in San Francisco.

For the most part, Alaska's oil is produced on land rather than offshore. However, government geologists believe remote waters such as the Chukchi Sea, which spans between Alaska and Russia, could hold billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Oil companies led by Shell spent a staggering $2.7 billion for Chukchi Sea acreage at a federal lease sale in February.

Twenty-two older drilling platforms that began operating before the U.S ban was imposed in 1990 still remain in production off the California coastline. But state political leaders led by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger strongly oppose new drilling.

Oversight of offshore leases is the responsibility of the Minerals Management Service of the Department of Interior, which has a team of 60 inspectors who fly to lease sites each day in helicopters to inspect rigs for safety and environmental compliance.

Chris Oynes, associate director of the Minerals Management Service, said that advances in drilling technology and safety features, many of which were ordered after the 1969 spill in California, have drastically curtailed the threat of environmental mishaps. One device is a safety valve inserted 100 feet below the ocean floor that can be turned off to halt the flow of oil if workers have to abandon an endangered rig.

An estimated 3 million gallons of oil have spilled from oil and gas operations in 73 incidents between 1980 and 1999, according to Oynes' agency. Environmental groups say the spills illustrate the ecological dangers of offshore drilling, but Oynes said the last significant spill was the 1969 blowout.

Patterson says his office records about 500 minor spills a year in Texas from vessels or off-loading incidents but said he does not remember a spill related to offshore drilling.

Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington Bureau and Wesley Loy of the Anchorage Daily News contributed.

e-mail: dmontgomery(at)mcclatchydc.com)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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