10 July, 2006

Rig vote

The House voted a few days ago to allow offshore drilling in all outer-continental shelves in U.S. territory. That is, everything more than 50 miles offshore is open for oil and gas exploration and drilling development. The region between 50 and 100 miles is subject to ban by individual states before a specified time deadline (2009 for oil, a single year for gas), but since the bill mandates that 50% of royalties must be paid out to states (instead of almost entirely to the federal government, as it is now), many states might choose to forgo such a ban.

It's unlikely that the Senate would pass anything so grandiose, since offshore drilling favors major opposition from environmental groups, but it's important to remember that this is all happening in the run-up to election season. This year high gas prices are sure to be an important point of debate*, which will certainly contribute towards people making incredibly bad decisions in the name of easing the lives of consumers.

It therefore behooves us to review why offshore drilling is an incredibly bad idea.

Not so cute now, are ya?
Oil companies are fond of pointing out that oil spills, and offshore drilling in specific, make up a tiny fraction - less than 5% - of the total amount of petroleum pollution that gets into the ocean, and an even smaller fraction if you include natural seepage. Of course, in most of those situations the pollution is relatively diffuse and not nearly as destructive as in the case of an oil spill, when it coats everything and makes life very difficult for otters and other cute animals.

But never mind that; what concerns us is not improbable outlier events, but the routine activities of drilling. In brief: the basic protocol for oil exploration and drilling is: your rig (of whatever type) sets up where you want to drill. Then you cut into the ground, directing your drill where you want it to go until you've reached your source. After that you drop in tubes, seal it in place and start pumping.

The catastrophe you want to prevent here is blowout - when gases or fluids under pressure force their way out of the bore. Blowouts can be catastrophic. The worst oil spill in history occured in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Bay of Campeche when an exploratory well (Ixtoc I) blew out and was uncontrolled for nearly a year, spilling somewhere between 140 and 428 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The way you prevent blowouts is by maintaining pressure in the shaft using "drilling muds" or "drilling fluids". These are usually recirculated in the shaft and re-used, but a significant amount is deposited on the ocean floor. The high-density fluids used in drilling muds, as well as the drilling cuttings from the bore itself, may contain heavy metals like cadmium or mercury in order to give it weight. Needless to say, introducing such toxic metals into ocean environments is not healthy for them, especially in shallow-water environments. Drilling fluids also may contain extremely toxic hydrocarbon lubricants, although safer alternatives to many of these exist or are being developed.

A second important source of pollution is produced water released from the bore - this can contain hydrocarbons, metals, and most significantly, slightly radioactive compounds, like radium, which may precipitate out and settle onto the ocean floor.

I'm tired of saying this, but it's especially disgusting that bills like this one are being passed while there has been no substantial Congressional action to encourage conservation, which could probably offset the bulk of increased production from offshore drilling with relative ease. And, as has been continually pointed out, since oil is traded on a pretty ideal global market and most major oil companies are multinational, there is absolutely no difference in terms of price to the consumer to increasing production at home or abroad.

* For some stupid fucking goddamn idiotic reason.


since oil is traded on a pretty ideal global market 

... and since the USA does not have a nationalized fuel industry. venezuelans would love to see more oil pumped in venezuelan territory, because they could keep selling it to themselves for pennies, offset by "ideal" foreign pricing. 

Posted by hibiscus

I'm not sure how that would work out for the U.S. anyway, since it consumes 25% of the world's oil, and so couldn't very well supply its own needs and offset it with anything at all. Venezuela can only get away with that because it produces way more than it consumes . 

Posted by saurabh

good point ... i wasn't really advocating a giant takeover. i was thinking back to the small windfalls for the municipal utility districts in california that the enron etc price rigging created, and how that local price benefit was dwarfed by the overall losses to the state economy, the ensuing election of a pro-enron governor, and the generally terrible vibe that sequence gives about effectively using time left on the clock.

you saw that people are talking about mexico having maybe 10 years of serious oil left. 

Posted by hibiscus

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