The Environmental Disaster That Wasn't

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The Environmental Disaster That Wasn't

November 2, 2005 3 min read
Ben Lieberman
Ben Lieberman, a specialist in energy and environmental issues, is a Senior...

Of all the energy-related bad news brought on by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one piece of good news has gone largely unnoticed. The two powerful storms did not cause any major offshore oil spills despite dealing a knockout punch to America's biggest oil producing region. This remarkable accomplishment in environmental safety should not be ignored in the upcoming debate over expanding domestic oil drilling to new areas.


The hurricanes swept through the central and western Gulf of Mexico, home to 25 percent of the nation's domestic oil production, and the impact was extensive. Over 100 offshore oil facilities were completely destroyed, and many others have yet to start up again. Production is still low and will not reach pre-hurricane levels for months.


"One might have expected the entire Gulf to be blackened with oil," said Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton at an October 27th Senate hearing on post-Katrina energy issues. Instead, "there were no significant spills from any of our wells." The Department of the Interior, which has authority over most offshore drilling, had mandated a number of safety features to prevent massive spills from the sea floor, such as those that occurred off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969 and in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. Katrina and Rita provided what Norton calls "the toughest test of our offshore safety," and the results are highly encouraging.


These improvements were evident before Katrina. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study entitled "Oil in the Sea III" states that "improved production technology and safety training of personnel have dramatically reduced both blowouts and daily operational spills." The study adds that "accidental spills from platforms represent about one percent of petroleum inputs in North American waters."


The hurricanes did cause many spills from ruptured oil and fuel storage tanks throughout the affected areas, and this is a matter of legitimate concern. But none are of a magnitude likely to result in substantial or long-term environmental damage.


The reduced risk of catastrophic underwater oil spills should be an important lesson in the post-hurricane debate over drilling in other coastal areas.


The hurricane-ravaged parts of the central and western Gulf are not, as many assume, the only offshore locations with significant oil deposits. They are merely the only ones where drilling is not subject to severe federal constraints. However, there are offshore oil and natural gas reserves in restricted areas in Alaska, the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the eastern Gulf. Estimates vary, but there may be more energy in these off-limits areas than in those where drilling is allowed. Tapping this energy could increase domestic production significantly, both lowering prices overall and leaving us less vulnerable should a disaster strike any one area.


Unfortunately, fears of oil spills have sparked strong opposition to new drilling. This is particularly true in Florida and California, two states with big tourism industries and high coastal property values but also great untapped offshore energy reserves. In Senate hearings on the energy bill, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) reiterated her state's opposition to offshore drilling, noting that "an oil spill in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara killed thousands of birds, as well as dolphins, seals, and other animals. We know this could happen again."


The congressional delegations from these states managed to keep pro-drilling provisions out of the energy bill, which was passed last August. These legislators even opposed a modest effort to allow other states to opt out of the federal restrictions and drill off their coasts.


The hurricanes put the issue back on the table, and similar pro-drilling measures have been reintroduced. Congress will be considering them in the weeks ahead. Leading the charge is Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Resources. The committee has introduced a bill that includes state opt-out measures. "I've always believed that this should be a state decision," says Pombo.


It is still an uphill fight. Thus far, opponents have held the line against new drilling. Many remain wedded to outdated notions of offshore drilling being environmentally riskier than it now is. They often invoke the memory of decades-old oil spills but ignore the more recent track record.


Katrina and Rita left us with two energy lessons. The first is that there are serious consequences of relying too heavily on one hurricane-prone region for such a large percentage of domestic oil production. The second is that, given the safety record in the face of these two major hurricanes, we can expand and geographically diversify the nation's domestic oil supply and do so with considerably less environmental risk than in the past.


Ben Lieberman is Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


Ben Lieberman