Offshore Oil Drilling: Better Here Than Elsewhere

The following is an editorial written by environmental journalist Amanda Little in response to the BP oil leak.

One month after BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico and unleashed a catastrophic oil spill, the costs are sickening.

Fragile marshes once rich with marine life are now coated with brown scum. Hundreds of shrimpers and oystermen are out of work, and the region's multi-billion-dollar seafood industry is crippled. Twenty-five-hundred square miles of ocean is the color of tar. And the leak continues to surge.

I, like so many observers of this disaster, find its consequences abhorrent. But the event has also deepened my conviction that America must expand coastal drilling. If we don't -- if we push the risks of our oil dependence out of sight and onto the shores and coastlines of faraway nations -- we will be willfully submitting to an ignorance we can't afford.

Last year, Americans used roughly 25 barrels of oil per person. By comparison, Europeans used 17 barrels each, and the Japanese used 14. Despite our gigantic appetite for oil, Americans stay sheltered from the risks and realities of what it takes to get this stuff.

In 2008, when reporting my book "Power Trip," I traveled 200 miles off the coast of New Orleans to visit the Cajun Express, a deepwater rig owned by TransOcean and a sibling of the Horizon. The rig was suspended in 7,500 feet of water, with a drill thrusting more than 20,000 feet beneath the sea bed. My guide, a Chevron executive, compared the challenge of drilling there to "flying 35,000 feet above New York City in a jumbo jet, aiming a baseball at the pitcher's mound in Yankee Stadium, and hitting it dead center."

The enterprise struck me as doggedly ambitious, but also hauntingly desperate -- like an addict forcing a syringe into the earth's innermost veins. Three out of four deepwater wells come up dry -- nerve-wracking odds when each costs $100 million, as much as 20 times what they cost on land. The deeper and farther offshore you drill, the greater the risks. Temperatures "down hole" get ever hotter, the pressures more intense, and the likelihood of hitting pay dirt more and more remote.

It's shocking to think that these extreme offshore drilling regions are widely considered the industry's last best hope of finding new oil. Many geologists believe that the deepest regions of the Gulf -- below 4,000 feet -- hold more untapped oil reserves than any other parts of the Western world.

"The odds are low that we're going to hit some fabulous new discovery on land," Matthew Simmons, a leading industry investor and analyst, told me. "Everybody's looking to the deep sea for big new finds."

As my host on the Cajun Express looked out at the vast seas surrounding the rig, he said: "A decade from now, this moonscape could be populated with rigs as far as the eye can see."

The image may seem jarring, but the scenario does seem increasingly likely. Even with innovations in solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal, electric cars and green buildings, the Department of Energy projects that American oil demand will continue to hold steady. Were we to slash our oil consumption, industrial growth in China and India would still push global petroleum demand ever higher. It could triple by mid-century, according to some estimates.

The debate over this catastrophe is centered on blame. Who's at fault? The rig owners? The well owners? The engineers? The supervisors? The regulators? The list of potential culprits is long, but few Americans implicate ourselves.

As long as we demand oil, the industry will literally go to any lengths to get it. And as long as the risks of oil production stay hidden, we will continue, blindly, to demand it.

As BP engineers scramble to control this horrendous mess, the worst thing we could do is push the problem out of view. If American coastlines are closed to oil development, these risks will simply shift to the coastlines of Nigeria, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Angola and other nations where environmental standards are extremely lenient, if they even exist. In 2007, a supertanker off the South Korean coast crashed and dumped 10,840 tons of oil -- the biggest spill on record. Time's Bryan Walsh recently reported that Nigeria has oil spills equal to the size of the Exxon Valdez roughly every year.

By shutting down our coastlines to drilling we would be failing to recognize -- and mitigate -- the true costs of fossil fuels. We would be failing to hold ourselves accountable.

Oil is the thread from which our modern lives dangle, but it is an invisible thread -- a substance harvested mostly in foreign lands and pumped through underwater pipelines. Once burned, it disperses invisibly -- but malignantly -- into the atmosphere.

Only when we see oil rigs crowded along our coastlines, and experience the human consequences of climate change, will we mobilize the shift toward clean alternatives on a grand scale.

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