Fact checkin'

i-cf237159c086bac6f72243e0b660b557-KatrinaRig.jpgThe Washington Post checks McCain's rhetoric about and the safety of offshore drilling:

Sen. John McCain says at every campaign stop that offshore oil drilling is safe, playing down the risk of environmental accidents, even when faced with the power of a hurricane.

"I'm aware that off the coast of Louisiana and Texas there are oil rigs, as we well know, and those rigs have survived, very successfully, the impacts of hurricanes, Hurricane Katrina, as far as Louisiana's concerned," McCain said at a town hall in Michigan last week.

In an energy speech recently, McCain said that: "As for offshore drilling, it's safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston."

In fact, Katrina and Hurricane Rita caused damage to oil rigs and storage facilities in the Gulf, according to press reports and government studies.

The hurricanes totally destroyed 113 oil rigs, according to the government's Minerals Management Service, and damaged 457 pipelines. The resulting oil spills were large enough to be seen from space, according to several reports.

While I'm all for beating up on John McCain's nonsensical claims about offshore drilling, I don't know what that last sentence is supposed to mean. The KH-12 spy satellites reportedly have a resolution of about 6 inches. Landsat satellites have a resolution of about 15 meters, MODIS has resolutions between 250 m and a kilometer. EROS has a commercial imagery satellite with 1.8 m resolution, while the IKONOS commercial imaging satellites can gather data to a resolution of 80 cm. Saying something can be seen from space is pretty meaningless at this point.

More relevant is that the spills following Katrina were "among the worst on record":

The US [C]oast [G]uard, which is responsible for the marine environment, said yesterday more than 6.5 million gallons of crude oil had been spilt in at least seven major incidents. The previous worst spill in US waters was the 11m gallons in Alaskan waters from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

"This is a major event," said Lieutenant Colonel Glynn Smith of the [C]oast [G]uard in New Orleans. "Things are going well, but three-quarters of the oil from the spills has not yet been recovered."

When that report came out in September 2005, the Coast Guard had yet to assess most of the 400 reported spills. That was two weeks after the storm struck New Orleans; the count rose to 593 spills releasing 9 million gallons by that November, with industry officials warning that "there was no way they could have foreseen or prepared for the environmental mess."

A more recent assessment by the Minerals Management Service found that "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Caused 124 Offshore Spills For A Total Of 743,700 Gallons." This is what McCain dismissed as "not … significant spillage." He should take it up with Wally Cooper, the EPA's coordinator for just one of the region's spills, who told the Houston Chronicle: "This is worse than the worst-case scenario."

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One caveat - oil & gas companies have leased a great deal of territory with which they have done nothing except analyze aerial and satellite photography. Oil is finite - and probably more than half of extant oil has been used. So a good way to make money off of oil would be to hoard it, and use hoarding to drive the price upward as far as possible. That is to say, lease as much oil-bearing territory as possible, but use it primarily to drive prices up and only secondarily to produce oil (and then at some far remove). It's possible, even likely, that expanded oil leases in the gulf won't lead to drilling in the near future. Thus the increased oil spill risks you discuss may be much further away than the 5-7 years people have been citing for when drilling might start. (Current oil spill risks are probably similar to what they were before Katrina & Rita).

"there was no way they could have foreseen or prepared for the environmental mess."

I seem to recall that, back in the 1970s, when deep-sea drilling became feasible, the 'radical environmentalists' warned, repeatedly, of the possibility of large oil spills in the event of hurricanes. One of the claims put forth by the oil companies is that making the off-shore rigs more resistant to storm damage would cost too much. If we figure in the cost of preparing for future spills and cleaning up actual spills, it would probably be CHEAPER to strengthen the oil rigs. But then, of course, the oil companies would have to pick up the whole tab, whereas the oil spills are cleaned up by the American taxpayer which then has to attempt, in court, to get the money from the oil companies.

Is there anything about increasing oil drilling, transport, and processing in the US that you are willing to support?
Or are we left to solely rely on the wind to blow and the sun to shine as the only possible solution to reducing dependence on foreign oil?

Daprez: I used to work to get compensation for the civilians radiated by fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests. At a party in Washington one night I was accosted by an electrical industry lobbyist who argued loudly that the deaths of several thousand Americans was "minor," "unprovable," and "a small price to pay for electricity." One drink later he popped up with the old line about how "more Americans died in the back seat of Ted Kennedy's car than from any incident involving nuclear power generation." He got quiet and pale when I told him he was dead wrong. He was unaware of the deaths of two people in an incident at Arco, Idaho. "Oh, that's no problem," he said. "We'll just increase security to military levels. The Navy, you know, has never had an incident. It's not like these plants are subject to sabotage or anything." I pointed out that the deaths were at a Navy-run reactor, and were the result of sabotage. (Odd case -- two workers sparring over one wife, but working it out with a wrench in the reactor's containment vessel. They both died in the steam explosion.)

But the principle remains. We can probably increase oil drilling and shipping, but we'll all be damned if we rely on idiots who claim that it's perfectly safe, and that we don't need to beef up environmental and health protection. And we'll be doubly damned if we don't put the oil drillers, pipeliners, shippers and other riggers, roustabouts and executives, on the hook to guarantee the safety, security, and health and environmental friendliness of the process.

Sure, we can have safe (oil, nuclear, wind, solar) -- but I won't trust some clown who doesn't know what's going on in his own industry to get it right.

Yes, let's have a free market: Oil companies should pay for the damage they do, just as would a housewife who backed her car into a bus.

i work for oil companies. any financial roadblocks you wanna give oil companies are passed straight to the consumer. i dont hate the environment but states who dont allow drilling i could care less if they get charged triple at the pumps. everyone wants a convenient lifestyle but no one wants the consequences in their back yard. this is america if anyone is unhappy they are free to get a bicycle or horse.

By drew broom (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink