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Americas

After the spill, what lies in store for America’s offshore oil?

Text by Perrine MOUTERDE

Latest update : 2010-05-04

In March, US President Barack Obama announced a new wave of offshore oil exploration. But in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, do the planners of America’s future energy security need to go back to the drawing board?

The explosion on drilling platform Deepwater Horizon and the resulting oil spill has reignited the debate in the USA on future offshore oil exploration.

On Monday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has up until now been strongly in favour of deep-sea drilling, said: “"I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil slick [in the Gulf of Mexico] destroying our previous ecosystem. That will not happen in California."
 
On Friday, four US lawmakers demanded that US President Barack Obama reconsider his policy of encouraging future domestic oil drilling, urging him instead to ramp up development of offshore wind farms instead.
 
One of the four, New Jersey Representative Rush Holt, a former physics professor, said: "Fossil fuels are just not sustainable over the long run for all sorts of reason.”
 
"The wind resources are really quite large and over time are much larger than oil resources," he said, adding that offshore wind power could supply "more than half of the electricity needs of the eastern United States. Fossil fuels are dirty and dangerous."
 
New zones of exploration
 
At the end of March, Obama said that he wanted to open up new zones for offshore oil exploration off the coast of Virginia and in the Gulf of Mexico, a decision that would put an end to a moratorium in place since the early 1980s.
 
Immediately after the April 22 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil platform, Obama ordered a freeze on new projects (even though the lifting of the moratorium would not have taken place until 2012 and after an inspection of existing oil platforms).
 
Nevertheless, he repeated last Friday that the exploitation of domestic oil resources would play a crucial role in a future USA energy strategy which should be approached “responsibly”.
 
The USA is the biggest global consumer of oil, using 20% of the world’s output. And despite its ambitions to increase its energy self-sufficiency, 60% of the oil that the country uses is imported.
 
Offshore drilling represents around a third of the country’s domestic production.
 
Deeper and deeper
 
But environmentalists are increasingly concerned about the methods of offshore oil extraction. Oil companies have been drilling in shallow waters for some 60 years, but it is now increasingly common to drill at depths of more than two kilometres below the ocean surface.
 
At the site of the Deepwater Horizon spill, BP is attempting to place a metal funnel over the source of the leak, 1,500 metres below the surface, to ease the cleanup operation. This has never been attempted at such depths.
 
Yet supporters of deep-sea drilling are keen to point out that significant technical progress has been made by the industry.
 
According to the US National Research Council, deep-sea oil exploration is responsible for only 2% of the pollution found in the waters off the North American coasts, the remainder being made up of natural and industrial leakage.
 
‘Drill, baby drill’
 
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, some 100 oil platforms were destroyed by violent seas, with minimal environmental impact.
 
“Despite its tragic consequences, the Deepwater Horizon accident doesn’t fundamentally change the strong safety record of offshore drilling in recent years,” writes Samuel Thernstrom, a resident fellow and the co-director of the Geoengineering Project at the American Enterprise Institute, in the New York Times. “But the political context for the administration’s policy is more fluid.”
 
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, famous for her “Drill, baby drill” campaign slogan at the 2008 Republican Convention, has not budged from her support of continued offshore exploration, as she explains in a Facebook posting titled “Domestic Drilling: Why We Can Still Believe”.
 
She writes: “We still believe in responsible development, which includes drilling to extract energy sources, because we know that there is an inherent link between energy and security, energy and prosperity, and energy and freedom.”

 

Date created : 2010-05-04

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