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What Happens to Offshore Drilling After the Gulf Oil Spill?

Deepwater oil spill

"It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." That's not a joke—President Obama actually said that on April 2, soon after he announced a plan to expand offshore oil and gas exploration. What a difference a few weeks makes. In a nutshell: BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded; approximately 210,000 gallons of oil are now seeping into the Gulf of Mexico daily; animals, wetlands, fisheries, and local tourism industries are all threatened; and now Gov. Charlie Crist has declared a state of emergency. The spill has also officially reached the Louisiana coast—and it smells. And now, exactly one week after politicians confidently assured us that the spill won't affect drilling plans, Obama has declared a moratorium on new drilling until the government figures out why Deepwater Horizon exploded.

Does this disaster mean long-term problems for offshore drilling?

Environmental groups certainly hope so. "This is a wake-up call for policy makers. I don't know how many reminders they need to transition off fossil fuels," said Daniel Kessler, a Senior Media Officer at Greenpeace. Plenty, apparently. In a recent blog post, Jeremy Symons, a Senior VP at the National Wildlife Federation, lamented policymakers' lack of insight:

After a similarly unrelenting spill from an oil rig near Australia last year, oil companies went before Congress and promised that this couldn’t happen here in America. In September, David Rainey of BP testified before the Senate that their offshore technology was "safe and reliable." He pledged that "any release from our operations is unacceptable." Eight months later, the Coast Guard has set the ocean on fire in an unsuccessful bid to stop the spread of BP’s oil in the Gulf.

It's not just environmental organizations that are worried. While the federal government's official line is that drilling will only be halted until the Deepwater Horizon investigation is complete, many politicians are jumping on the opportunity to stop offshore drilling permanently. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is introducing legislation to stop Obama's drilling plans, claiming that any Senate climate and energy legislation will be dead on arrival if it includes provisions for increased drilling. And four New Jersey lawmakers—Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, and Reps. Frank Pallone and Rush Holt—reiterated their opposition to offshore drilling in a letter to Obama.

We won't go into detail on the potential environmental and human impacts of the spill—you can read about that in our earlier post—but the Obama administration won't likely have an easy time shoving offshore drilling down our throats once the tragic pictures and anecdotes start pouring in.

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  • Francis Anderson

    @Ariel -- thanks for responding. Funny, I just read that factions within the right wing are now accusing the Obama administration of executing sabotage on the rig to discourage offshore drilling.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    @Francis -- you're right. Thus far, the administration hasn't been shoving it down our throats. But after this disaster, it will be (if offshore drilling isn't banned).

  • Ash Edwards

    "First, nuclear energy has proven far less environmentally dangerous than coal or oil"

    Problem with that statement is that in 10,000 years the nuclear waste of today will still be a concern for those in the distant future. Nuclear waste won't just wash away like chocolate milk.

  • Karl Jeffery

    Message to Frank Strickland - I thought the leak was due to a failure of the blow out protector - how would a heavy wall pipe casing have prevented the BOP from failing, or contained the leak, also bearing in mind the rig above it had exploded?

    Message to Fast Company - the oil rig didn't cause this spill - it was caused by failure of the blow out protector on the seabed, which is not part of the rig

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    "...the Obama administration won't likely have an easy time shoving offshore drilling down our throats once the tragic pictures and anecdotes start pouring in."

    Shoving it down our throats? I haven't read a more biased article in a mainstream magazine since Newsweek's Evan Thomas said Obama is "sort of God." What ever happened to objective journalism?

  • Chris Reich

    This story is loaded with irony. First, nuclear energy has proven far less environmentally dangerous than coal or oil. "Clean Coal" is a myth as is environmentally safe off-shore drilling.

    The problem is cost. Fossil fuel is cheap in spite of the whining companies do about the huge cost of developing technologies to extract the stuff. Second is greed. The oil and gas companies concentrate their wealth at the top. We fools who buy into lines like "drill baby drill" will pay $5 a gallon for gas and cheer as our EXXON holdings in our 401Ks goes up in value by $2 a share.

    We have never had a good, clear energy policy in this country. Like immigration, the politicians deliver speeches rather than leadership. Obama is no exception.

    Did you know the amount of solar energy striking a square kilometer on earth is comparable to the power generated by a nuclear power plant? Sure, we're not there with the technology. But the rest of the world is moving fast. Why aren't we?

    The market doesn't work. The oil industry will not "self police". We must impose strict environment regulations on off-shore drilling. We can soften the blow by imposing an import duty on oil to achieve parity with imported oil. After all, we are just about directly funding terror through our purchase of foreign oil. Iran isn't funding their bomb project from rug export money.

    Chris Reich

  • Francis Anderson

    Its disappointing that Obama caved in to the right wing and the oil lobby. I don't think it was accurate to say his administration is "ramming it down our throats". The cultural reference point for "Drill Baby Drill" would be Sen John McCain (R) and Gov Sarah Palin (R). Don't forget also that Republican George W. Bush pushed for years to expand offshore drilling. Obama's plan is narrower than Bush's, which also would have opened up oil and gas leasing areas off California and in the North Atlantic.

  • Paul Chaney

    This is tragic on any number of levels. As a resident of south Louisiana, I'm deeply troubled by the environmental impact it will have on our coastline, the wetlands, et al. I'm equally as troubled by the economic impact it may have, given that our economy is driven by the oil and gas industry. Even worse, I'm concerned about how this may impact the industry long-term as it only serves as a stimulus to quell further drilling. But, the thing that concerns me more than anything is our continued dependence on foreign oil.

    We must become the masters of our own destiny so far as energy production is concerned. Nuclear, solar, hydro-electric, wind, bio-fuels, and, yes, continued, even increased drilling on our own soil and in the Gulf should be mandated. Let's find better ways to protect ourselves against similar biological hazards as this and cleaner, more efficient sources of energy as well. Bottom line, however, we must take care of this ourselves, not surrender the control of energy production to foreign governments, at least some of which are hostile to us.

  • Simon Hamer

    Perhaps I'm thin-skinned, old-fashioned and out of touch.
    I find this type of thing very distressing, I'm a huge lover of nature and I find man's reliance on oil such a ridiculous fact. How many times do we need to destroy our natural environment needlessly before we realise oil needs to be marginalised as a source of energy?
    Unless we can find a way to stop disasters like this, it raises serious questions about oil drilling offshore. How many other people's livelyhoods are put at risk because of the effects of this spill?
    I hope their lost incomes are accounted for in the true cost of this disaster.

  • Frank Strickland

    This story does not surprise me, since I have worked in this industry for 27 years as a welder and pipe fitter on refineries,off shore, and power plants. I have always known that a heavy wall pipe casing was needed to prevent such a travesty but the cost was more important than the environment where the oil company are concerned. There is a design system that will prevent this from ever happening again off shore but will the oil tycoons pay $30,000.00 for every 40 feet of depth to install this system? Ask your President and Congressman if this system exist. I know it does. As a welder and pipe fitter on such projects I have pondered this issue and when I explained my method to a BP company engineer his reply was ....that is not a cost effective means @ this time. I wonder if he is rethinking my advice now, even though I do not have a engineering degree I do think innovative and outside of the box. If BP Oil Co. wants to contract a solution for this I will be waiting. I hope someone helps me get this message to the world!