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When There's Driling, There's Spilling

By       Message Karl Grossman     Permalink
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When there's drilling, there's spilling. That is conceded by the oil industry. As the late Paul (Red) Adair, who specialized in grappling with oil well-blow-outs said,"You can take all the precautions in the world" and spills "still happen."

The massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico formed by an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil (210,000 gallons) gushing daily to the surface after an explosion that toppled British Petroleum's Transocean Deepwater Explorer rig is now threatening the northern coast of the Gulf.

What ishappening is what can be expected to occur more often if the plan of the Obama administration to open more offshore waters to oil and gas drilling moves ahead.

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This is because such drilling and spillage are intertwined.

I learned about this as an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper the Long Island Press after , in 1970, breaking the story about the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic.

I got a tip from a fisherman. He said he had seen in the ocean east of Montauk--on the eastern tip of Long Island--the same kind of vessel as he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.

I spent the day telephoning oil companies. PR people for each insisted their companies were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. But at day's end, as I was walking out of the office, there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf Oil saying, yes, Gulf was involved in exploring for oil in the Atlantic--as part of a "consortium" of 32 oil companies. These included the companies which all day issued denials. It was a first lesson in oil industry honesty, an oxymoron.

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In 1971 I visited the first drilling rig set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia. It was apparent on the rig that the offshore drilling process is fraught with danger.

A rescue boat went round and round. Positioned on the rig were sealed capsules--designed to eject workers. "We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster," explained the representative of Shell Canada.

The Shell Canada official acknowledged that booms and other devices the oil industry claimed--and still maintains--contain spills "just don't work in over five foot-foot seas." This is not an especially unusual situation in ocean environments.

Thus the oil could be expected in many, if not most, circumstances to hit shore. But there are "stockpiles of clean-up materialon shore," said the man from Shell Canada. "No," he said, "not straw as in the States. Here we have peat moss."

Records I examined involving spillage and offshore drilling reflected spillage as chronic. According to Department of Interior records, between 1971 and 1975 there were 5,857 spills totally 51,421 barrels of oil from operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Further, it was acknowledged that the offshore Atlantic is a precarious place to drill. The President's Council on Environmental Quality declared in a 1974 report: "A major spill along the beaches of Cape Cod, Long Island or the Middle or South Atlantic states could devastate the areas affected. The Atlantic is a hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in either the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico."

I traveled on the story--to Massachusetts where the Department of Interior was planning to lease 882,443 acres of offshore Atlantic lands on the George's Bank, one of the globe's foremost fishing grounds, for oil and gas drilling. I went to the Florida Keys in whose turquoise waters Interior would let oil companies drill.

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I spent plenty of time in New Jersey--Interior held many of its meetings involving Mid-Atlantic leasing in the state capital of Trenton. In 1976, it leased 529,446 Mid-Atlantic acres to the oil industry for $1.1 billion. There was strong resistance up and down the Atlantic coast which included lawsuits.

In an environmental impact statement in 1978 in response to a lawsuit challenging the leasing of the Mid-Atlantic acres, Interior said: "Recovery of the affected area from a large spill will be slow, probably requiring a minimum of ten years." For the anticipated 20-to-25 year lives of the field, it forecast four large spills of more than 1,000 barrels, 58 spills of 50 to 1,000 barrels and 3,340 spills of up to 50 barrels.

Much of the Atlantic coast--like the coast of the northern Gulf of Mexico--is composed of back bays and miles upon miles of fragile wetlands, where marine life breed and feed. It's a "soft" coast that would absorb oil like a sop rag.

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Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up.

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