It is hard to believe that it’s been just 10 months since the Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed an estimated 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the mantra of “Drill Here, Drill Now” can still be heard echoing throughout the halls of Congress. Negligence and lack of oversight by Transocean, BP and the Federal Government resulted in the loss of 11 human lives, thousands of animal deaths and an ecological catastrophe that released 5 times more oil than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. If oil covered beaches, oiled seafood, generational ecosystem impacts, significant declines to tourism-based economies, and lasting damages to wildlife and ecosystems won’t deter “Drill Here Drill Now” advocates then what will?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching exactly what happens to coastal towns once the oil and gas industry moves in. I was curious to know what onshore infrastructure is necessary to support these industries. Surely, I thought, if decision-makers really understood what it would mean to allow drilling along our coasts, even during normal operation, they would change their tune.
I have heard pro-drilling advocates in my state of South Carolina say that allowing drilling off of our coasts would be like seeing one of our shrimp boats off in the distance. The idea that there would simply be one oil rig floating at the horizon bringing fossil fuel to shore unnoticed is simply not true. Offshore drilling requires numerous rigs, dangerous seismic testing, onshore refining facilities the size of small towns, and thousands of miles of pipeline. The Gulf of Mexico alone has 31,000 miles of pipeline. Additionally, large barges, maintenance ships and helicopters would need to constantly come and go from local ports. There is also the potential for frequent pipeline leaks and, of course, the possibility of another Deepwater Horizon-type disaster.
Refineries and Health Hazards
There hasn’t been an oil refinery built in this country since the 1970′s, and for good reason. Oil refineries release an assortment of highly toxic chemicals like benzene, sulfuric acid, and mercury during the refining process. Louisiana is home to 17 oil refineries, placing it third in the nation for number of refineries (behind Texas and California). Louisiana, is fourth in the nation for hazardous air pollution from the petrochemical industry, and eighth in the nation for carcinogenic air pollution from the same industry.
Louisiana also ranks second in the nation for benzene pollution, a known carcinogen, as well as second in the nation for cancer mortality. Most benzene exposure occurs well below the 61 parts per million (ppm), the lowest level at which it can be smelled, meaning that people are generally unaware that they are exposed to it. According to the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center, once it is inhaled, benzene can lead to respiratory effects, reproductive effects, developmental effects, and more. Sulfuric acid, which smells similar to rotting eggs, is extremely dangerous when it comes in contact with human skin. It can lead to severe burns, and when inhaled if can corrode the throat, teeth, mucous, membranes, and respiratory tract. Mercury is also emitted from refineries. This highly dangerous toxin emitted by refineries can damage the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and reproductive systems. It can cause serious birth defects and can shut down kidney function in high enough levels. These three chemicals are just a few of the hazardous chemicals that communities near oil refineries endure.
What Else Comes with Offshore Drilling?
Strict environmental standards have prevented new refineries from being built since 1976, so the likelihood that the nation would build another one if we opened up the Atlantic to drilling is low. However, there is an equally dangerous side to this industry: pipelines. There are approximately 305,000 miles of natural gas pipelines and 200,000 miles of oil pipelines in the United States making it possible to transport oil and gas nearly anywhere in the U.S. Almost a quarter of the country’s gas pipelines, however, are over 50 years old and in poor condition. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) scheduled a hearing for March 1 -3, 2011 to discuss the safety of pipeline infrastructure, a question which gained momentum following the 2010 San Bruno, California pipeline explosion which took the lives of eight people, registered a shockwave as a 1.1 earthquake, and led eye witnesses to report seeing a wall of fire “more than 1,000 feet high.”
Currently, most of our Southeastern coasts are untouched. White sandy beaches and pristine marshes stretch for thousands of miles. Where would these pipelines go? Would they cut through our marshes and barrier island ecosystems? The idea that pipelines, that are subject to frequent leaks, could be tunneled through our precious ecosystems is frightening. Sometimes, in lieu of or even in conjunction with pipelines, large tankers pull up to the rig and take on oil. Tanker crashes and accidents are not unheard of and, in fact, have historically caused significant damage to our region just while transporting the fuel.
The large amount of onshore and near shore infrastructure required for offshore oil and natural gas drilling and refining has proven unsafe and hazardous for both the environment and human health. Opening up the Atlantic coast and the eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore drilling could literally change the face of our coastal communities forever. There are a lot of unanswered questions with what exactly would happen if we exploit our coastal resources for this industry. Compromises would have to be made and I, along with thousands who love our coasts just the way they are, are not willing to compromise the health and well being of our natural resources for a minuscule amount of fuel that is only a drop in the bucket of our energy needs.
Solutions to Drilling
The truth is that we don’t have to sacrifice our natural and cultural heritage in the Southeast for offshore drilling. Convinced that new drilling is not necessary, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy launched a contest in the summer of 2010 to solicit ideas from the nation’s brightest minds as to how our nation could put an end to drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and importing from the Persian Gulf. What resulted from this contest was a four-pronged solution. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy highlights these solutions in a video titled “Southern Solutions to Gulf Oil Drilling”.
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