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Offshore Drilling -- Opening Pandora's Box

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What's happening now in the Gulf of Mexico will occur more often if the plan to open more offshore waters to oil and gas drilling moves ahead.

This is because such drilling and spillage are intertwined.

I learned about this 40 years ago after, as an investigative reporter for the Long Island Press, I broke the story about the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic.

It began with a tip from a fisherman who told of seeing in the ocean east of Montauk -- on the eastern tip of Long Island -- the same kind of ship he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico. I spent a day telephoning oil companies to be told by PR people from each that their companies were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. As the day ended, as I walked out of the office, there was a call from a Gulf Oil PR representative saying that, 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 an initial experience in oil industry truthfulness.

The following year, 1971, I visited the first drilling rig set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia. A rescue boat went round and round. On the rig were capsules -- designed to eject workers. "We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster," explained the official of Shell Canada. It was obvious on the rig that offshore drilling is fraught with danger.

As to the booms proclaimed by the oil industry then and now as capable of cleaning up oil spills, the Shell Canada official said they "just don't work in over five foot-foot seas." In Nova Scotia or in the Atlantic to the south, five foot seas are common. So the oil could be expected in many, if not most, circumstances to hit shore.

Department of Interior records I examined as I pursued the offshore drilling story in the 70s acknowledged that spillage is chronic. According to Interior records, between 1971 and 1975 there were 5,857 spills totaling 51,421 barrels of oil from operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

And, it was admitted by the federal government that the Atlantic is a far more problematic place to drill. The President's Council on Environmental Quality declared in a 1974 report: "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."

The federal government was preparing in those years to lease offshore land up and down the Atlantic to oil companies -- including 882,443 acres on the George's Bank off Massachusetts, a world-renown fishing ground.

In 1976, Interior leased 529,446 Mid-Atlantic acres off New Jersey to the oil industry for $1.1 billion. But a lawsuit held that up. Included in Interior's response to the litigation was an environmental impact statement conceding the environmental damage from the planned drilling. "Recovery of the affected area from a large spill will be slow, probably requiring a minimum of ten years," it said. For the anticipated 20-to-25 year lives of the field, it projected 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.

"When oil is spilled into the environment we lose control of it," said a scientist critical of offshore Atlantic oil drilling, the late Dr. Max Blumer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Countermeasures are "effective only if all the oil is recovered immediately after the spill. The technology to achieve this goal does not exist." And it still does not exist.

Subsequently, drilling in the offshore Atlantic was prohibited by Congress because of its environmental impacts. That prohibition will end if the Obama administration now gets the support of Congress in its plan to open the Atlantic, along with, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska, to drilling.

Larry Penny, director of natural resources of the Town of East Hampton, New York recounts being out in a small boat off Santa Barbara, California when a blow-out on an offshore oil rig resulted in the massive oil spill there in 1969. The oil on the sea through which his boat needed to travel back was "about a foot thick."

"This is completely unnecessary," says Penny of the new federal government plan for expanded offshore oil drilling. "In this day and age this is ridiculous." Resources need to be put instead on implementing the use of "clean, safe" energy technologies now available.

"This is stupid," says Penny.

It sure is. The oil now on its way to the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico should

serve as a tragic lesson preventing any such expansion.

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