Offshore oil exploration—the locating and drilling of oil in the earth's crust below the water's surface in lakes, oceans, or other large bodies of water—in the United States began as early as the mid-1890s. It was during this time oil companies were walking just barely offshore and drilling into the sand right below the water. Staying relatively close to shore allowed oilmen to utilize technology they were already familiar with by drilling through piers into shallow water or placing the oil derrick into the sand to drill. This either produced very little oil or no oil at all. However, going farther out into deeper waters posed a set of unique challenges: a stable platform needed to be constructed to support rigorous drilling in deep waters; knowledge of weather conditions including tides, wind, and possible storms was essential for keeping workers safe; and overall, the expense of such exploration was immense as it required oil companies to investigate different drilling techniques that would make drilling feasible with no guarantee of success.
In 1933, the semisubmersible barge was utilized for offshore exploration. The barge was towed to the drilling site and then sunk, where it provided a stable base for the drilling platform. Once drilling was complete, the barge could be raised and moved to another location. This technology made drilling offshore more efficient and cost effective for oil companies. In October 1947, Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee drilled a successful well 10 and a half miles off of the Louisiana coast.
In 1953 two separate pieces of legislation were passed that would shape and impact offshore drilling. The first was the Submerged Lands Act, which allowed states to hold the title to lands within three miles of the shore. The second was the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which authorized the secretary of the interior to lease the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico for mineral exploration and exploitation. These two acts allowed states to choose the extent to which oil companies could be involved in their local economies and affect their lands. The amount of drilling done off various U.S. coastlines is a direct reflection on the culture of each state and the value residents place on conservation/protection of land and resources and the lure of economic growth. For example, the states that line the Gulf of Mexico are more inclined to back the oil companies that boost their economy and are less supportive of green initiatives that might take a source of income away from residents.
Oil spills and leaks are two of the many reasons Americans often oppose offshore drilling. The history of oil spills off of the U.S. coastline has Americans worried about future spills. The spills are devastating for coastal marine, plant, and animal life. A spill on January 28, 1969, in the Santa Barbara Canal helped to shape California's strict drilling regulations and the attitudes of its residents toward offshore drilling, and it passed the National Environmental Policy Act in late 1969. This incident was also directly related to Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson's establishment of Earth Day in 1970.
Of particular environmental concern for Americans are the coastal ecosystems that thrive on or near the U.S. coast. Many of them house either endangered species or protected species, and offshore drilling poses a risk to these ecosystems even if there is no spillage. The location of drilling platforms can disrupt the migratory patterns of birds and affect the marine mammals that live off the coast. Fishing off the U.S. coast can also be damaged by offshore drilling, which can impact the fishing grounds and, in turn, affect state economies.
Despite the spill in the Santa Barbara Canal in the early 1970s, the Arab Oil Embargo helped to increase offshore drilling. The embargo restricted the flow of Arab oil into the United States, causing a shortage of oil for Americans. As a result, President Richard Nixon announced a project to help the United States become independent of foreign oil. Nixon's plan included offering support for oil exploration in America, which included the Alaska pipeline and increased leases off the Outer Continental Shelf (submerged land belonging to the United States).
In sharp contrast to the technological developments that allow for offshore drilling in ever-deeper waters and carry oil to the surface for Americans to consume, the technology to clean up after oil spills has not been able to keep up. The use of skimming, dispersables (chemicals used to disperse oil in water after it's spilled), and collecting oil after it has washed up on the beach are insufficient when compared with the technological advances that make it possible for companies to drill miles below the water's surface into the gulf. This disparity between technological advances validates the concerns of environmental groups especially in the wake of the 2010 BP gulf spill.
During the summer of 2010, Americans were glued to their televisions watching coverage of the BP oil spill from the oil platform the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. Despite being the “top of the line” in terms of technological advancements, the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded and sunk to the bottom of the gulf. Americans’ worst fears were realized when the BP well began to leak and spill oil into the gulf. Unlike oil spills such as that from the Exon Valdez spill, the Deepwater Horizon leak was not from oil transportation but rather a leak from the well itself. The only other significant leak of this kind was the 1969 Santa Barbara Canal spill.
The BP leak occurred in a very vulnerable location. Very close to the loop current in the gulf, which turns into the gulf stream, the current could have potentially carried oil far from the site of the spill. The gulf also plays a major role in the migration of many birds, which are often casualties of oil spills. The spill occurred off the Louisiana coast, home to roughly 40 percent of America's wetlands. It will be years before we know the full impact of the spill on the gulf's ecosystems.
By the time BP had capped and closed the well, it was estimated that some 200 million barrels of oil had been spilled directly into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the BP spill of 2010 will continue to be studied by environmentalists for decades to come. Hopefully, it will be the catalyst that pushes technological advancements in the direction of environmental protection.
See also: Ocean Restoration and Conservation (Environment); Technology and the Impact on Green (Science).
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