May 5, 2010


By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Without a doubt the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which resulted from an explosion on a drilling rig operating 50 miles offshore on April 20, is going to be one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history. Since that time about 1.6 million gallons of oil have spilled into the Gulf and is now threatening the area’s fishery, coastal marshes, shorelines and wetlands. And with nearly 40 percent of the U.S. seafood supply coming from the northern Gulf of Mexico, the impacts of this oil spill are not only tremendous, but potentially very long lasting.
While there will be considerable finger pointing at BP, who was leasing this rig and will ultimately bear the costs of cleaning up the spill, there are several questions that need to be answered as this country continues to expand its offshore drilling operations.
First, what caused the initial explosion that ultimately caused the giant rig to sink? Second, why did the blowout preventer, which is installed on every oil and gas well, and which if operating properly, should have sealed off the well after the explosion, fail?
In both the short term and long term those questions will need to be addressed as this country continues to develop more and more of its petroleum reserves whether they be on or offshore.
And so it is also important as Americans debate whether or not developing offshore oil reserves to keep a couple of things in perspective.
First, the development of all forms of energy carry with it a certain amount of inherent risks. It may be nice to believe that accidents, such as is now being experienced in the Gulf of Mexico, will never happen. But sooner or later, accidents will happen. The accidents may take the form of a ruptured pipeline that spills highly toxic salt water across pastures and into rivers and streams, such as what we witnessed in McKenzie County several years ago. Or they can take the form of a tanker running aground such as happened with the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. Or the accidents may take the form of a mining disaster or an accident at a nuclear plant.
And whenever a major accident occurs, Americans will start asking the question of whether that particular type of energy development is worth the risk? Just as some are now asking whether or not the continued development of offshore oil reserves is worth the risk.
Before Americans and our political leaders decide that offshore drilling has to be curtailed, it is important to note that according to industry information, drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico accounts for one-third of America’s domestic oil production and one-fourth of our natural gas supplies. There are currently 90 exploratory rigs working and about 3,500 oil-producing platforms in the Gulf of Mexico alone. And in spite of all of that activity, the federal Minerals Management Service says there have been no major spills, which is defined as 1,000 or more barrels of oil, in the last 15 years, a period that includes Hurricane Katrina.
Overall, the oil industry, as well as the federal government, has done a tremendous job over the years ensuring that all forms of energy development are being done as prudently and as safely as possible. But accidents do happen.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is an example of what can happen when things go wrong. But until the United States can wean itself off its dependence on oil, the federal government and the oil industry need to reassure Americans that this was a freak occurrence and that energy development is being done responsibly.