How Offshore Drilling Works
By Berry Dann, Julianna Dietz, and Sarah Ward
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez had just entered the frigid waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, when the tanker, freshly filled with crude oil, crashed into Bligh Reef, wrecking its hull on impact. Within hours, approximately 11 million gallons of oil had poured into the ocean, thus triggering one of the most devastating environmental disasters in U.S. history. Nearly three decades later, crude oil can still be found clinging to boulders across more than 1,000 miles of Alaskan coastline. Although exceptional in its scope, the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster was hardly the first or last of its kind. Such is the hazardous nature of the oil industry.
Before drilling can begin, geologists must first locate sedimentary rock formations, such as sandstone and shale, that are rich in oil and natural gas resources. To find these reserves beneath the seabed, fossil fuel companies employ seismic airguns. Because water amplifies and echoes any sound tenfold, the repeated blasting of seismic airguns has essentially created a deafening acoustic smog throughout the ocean, endangering sensitive fish and coral larvae, along with marine mammal populations that rely on sound to communicate, hunt, and mate.1 The cacophony doesn’t stop when oil and gas reserves are identified, for the extraction process can be equally loud and harmful.
Offshore drilling requires the construction of significant infrastructure, both on land and at sea. As such, offshore drilling endeavors generally surpass the onshore counterparts in terms of initial investment, operational costs, and ecological risk.2 New roadways, pipelines, and processing facilities colonize formerly pristine beaches and undermine important coastal ecosystems. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), thanks in part to drilling operations, Louisiana loses over 24 square miles of coastal wetlands every year, undermining natural storm barriers and increasing vulnerability to storm damage, along with damage from oil spills.3 Drill rig foundations, dredging shipping channels, underwater pipelines, and other offshore drilling infrastructure destroy and degrade seafloor habitats.4 Equipment is regularly contaminated with a drilling fluid containing heavy metals and petroleum products, which is used to lubricate bits and regulate pressure during operations, but which ultimately pollutes the surrounding environment. A recent study by the PEW Charitable Trust concluded that a single oil well discharges roughly 1,500 – 2,000 tons of waste material, which can dangerously bio-accumulate in our food chains.5 Unfortunately, rig discharges are still largely unregulated–a grave error especially when it comes to fracking.
Although the technology is far from new, fracking has earned a controversial spotlight in recent years due to the widespread implementation of a new technique that combines hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Discovered in the 1990s, this modern method of fracking allows drilling companies to unlock previously inaccessible reserves (e.g. impermeable rock, extreme depth) and recover more from existing, exhausted wells.7 While profitable to the oil and gas industry, fracking threatens conservation efforts, in many ways known and unknown. Disclosure of the true composition of fracking fluid remains protected through various “trade secret” exemptions under U.S. state and federal law.8 However, studies of the chemical mixture used to fracture the shale layer have found known carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and other endocrine inhibitors toxic to human health and marine life. Offshore fracking also jeopardizes the seismic stability of coastal communities, particularly those close to fault lines. According to a 2014 study conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity, onshore fracking operations “induced felt earthquakes of magnitudes 2 and 3” in Oklahoma and Ohio.9 The development of new fracking sites off the coast of California may similarly contribute to greater stress along faults, leaving the surrounding communities more susceptible to earthquakes of greater magnitudes. Still, due to the secretive nature of the industry, the Center for Biological Diversity emphasizes that “far too little is known about the toxicological and ecological effects of many fracking chemicals” and that more investigative research is imperative.10
As evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and on-going clean up, when things go wrong in the fossil fuel industry, consequences can be big and long term. And things go wrong all the time. Even with up-to-date safety protocols in place, an average of 880,000 gallons of oil goes into the ocean every year from U.S. drilling operations.11 Oil pollution, whether in coastal or open waters, is near impossible to fully clean up. Currents and winds circulate oil and gas pollution throughout the world’s ocean, so no spill is ever really contained. Tides push globs of oil onto beaches where it poisons nesting birds and suffocates sea turtle hatchlings and other burrowing animals. Depending on the sediment type, beaches can remain polluted by fossil fuel toxins long after clean-up activities have ended. Even the chemical dispersants used to minimize potential shoreline impacts can negatively affect exposed sea life. Marine mammals and sea turtles, who must regularly surface to breathe, are at greater risk of exposure to toxic oil slicks. Oil spills also hinder the breathing progress of sharks and rays, clogging their gills and potentially suffocating them. Animals that depend on fur to keep warm, like sea otters and polar bears, are often the most immediately impacted by oil pollution, many dying from hypothermia after their coat is covered in oil. Even if ocean creatures manage to avoid directly swimming in oil slicks, they are still impacted by spills as toxins quickly accumulate in their bodies from consuming contaminated prey. Too easily, these toxins end up on our plates.
As the global demand for energy increases and more oil companies move from land to sea, the likelihood of catastrophic accidents and spills grows. In the four year period 2010-2014, there were 35 spills of at least 7.7 tons each across the world— undoubtedly many more that went unreported. Even with so much at stake, U.S. legislature flip flops when it comes to revising regulations. Currently, over 5% of the habitat in the Gulf of Mexico is made up of oil and gas platforms. Before the ocean devolves into a graveyard of rusting rigs, the question must be asked: is the risk really worth the reward?