Blow Out in the Gulf


The massive oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico formed as now an estimated 5,000 barrels of oil (210,000 gallons daily) gush to the surface following an explosion at an oil rig is what other areas of the United States will face under President Barack Obama’s plan to open more offshore waters to oil and gas drilling.

This could be the Atlantic which, in a speech last month, Obama proposed be opened for drilling—despite decades of it being closed because of oil and gas drilling constituting an environmental threat.

As an investigative reporter for the daily newspaper Long Island Press, in 1970 I broke the story about the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic.

In years following, I probed the environmental consequences of offshore oil and gas drilling finding, as Sarah Palin put it, “drill baby drill,” coming with the the inevitability of—spill baby spill.

I got on the story after a tip from a fisherman who 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. Several scoffed at the very suggestion. But at day’s end, as I was walking out of the office, there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf 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.

I traveled on the issue including, in 1971, visiting 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.

An oil well blow-out is one thing on land and another entirely on water. 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.”  

The Atlantic, off Nova Scotia or to the south off the United States, is normally rough—over five foot seas are common.

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

I pored over records involving spillage and offshore drilling. They reflected spillage as being 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.

And, it was acknowledged, the offshore Atlantic is a far more precarious place to drill. . As 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. Recreational industries could be hurt, especially where the character of the communities is one of isolation, historic preservation or natural beauty. Outer continental shelf oil and gas production will result in onshore development of huge refineries, petrochemical complexes, gas processing facilities.”

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.

And 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.

Various reports filed by Interior in response to the litigation admitted major environmental consequences from the drilling. In one, in 1978, in connection with the leasing of the 529,446 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 fields, 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 that of the Gulf of Mexico where oil from the explosion at British Petroleum’s Transocean Deepwater Explorer rig is expected to arrive imminently—is composed of estuaries, bay backs and miles upon miles of fragile wetlands, the spawning and feeding grounds for the chain of marine life.  It’s a “soft” coast that would absorb oil like a sop rag.  There’s no way to clean oil from wetlands, to clean it off the bottoms of bays, no way to get it off bay bottoms where shellfish live.

The Department of Interior’s 1978 Mid-Atlantic report warned that “adverse effects on commercial fisheries will be encountered” which would include “smothering of shellfish…Finfish and shellfish will suffer mortality from oil spills and flavor may change because of tainting.”

A leading scientist speaking out on off-shore Atlantic oil and gas drilling was the late Dr. Max Blumer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He also noted a human-cancer connection. Oil picked up on human skin or taken in through the eating of marine life that had ingested oil could be cancer-causing, he said. “When oil is spilled into the environment we lose control of it,” Dr. Blumer warned. Countermeasures are “effective only if all the oil is recovered immediately after the spill. The technology to achieve this goal does not exist.”

It still does not exist.

Drilling of the Atlantic was stopped by Congressional action.

But that would end if Congress goes along with President Obama’s declaration in his March 30th speech that “my administration will consider potential areas for development” for oil and gas drilling in the Mid- and South-Atlantic, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the north coast of Alaska.

Beyond the environmental devastation threatened, the drilling itself would have a huge price: the cost of off-shore drilling is estimated at ten times the cost of drilling for petroleum on land.

This would make for very expensive gasoline, oil requiring huge capital and operating expenses to mine—the kind of money with which could vastly expand our getting energy from the sun, the winds and other clean, safe, renewable sources. But oil companies, being oil companies, are fixed on their product.

KARL GROSSMAN, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has focused on investigative reporting on energy and environmental issues for more than 40 years. He is the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com) and the author of numerous books.





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