American voters trying to figure out whether more offshore drilling is a good idea will get their say next month, because their choice of a new president and Congress will determine how aggressively the United States pursues the reserves of oil and gas that are thought to lie along the nation's coastlines.
INDEPENDENCE HUB, Gulf of Mexico — They’re drilling out here, baby, they’re drilling.
Bobbing in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, some 175 miles south of Mobile, Ala., this mammoth production platform perched above the deepest undersea wells on Earth is pulling up enough natural gas every day to heat or cool 5 million American homes. That’s 10 percent of all the natural gas being produced from the gulf, and nearly 1 percent of total U.S. production.
But the question is for how long, because the wells that the Independence is tapping could be depleted within five years — and Washington has long placed potential new oil and gas fields to the east off-limits to expanded drilling.
American voters trying to figure out whether more offshore drilling is a good idea will get their say next month, because their choice of a new president and Congress will determine how aggressively the United States pursues the reserves of oil and gas that are thought to lie along the nation’s coastlines.
As it happens, this $2 billion platform sits at the intersection of all the partisan rhetoric swirling over the nation’s future energy direction, between the GOP claim that expanded offshore drilling is the answer to the country’s energy woes and the Democratic insistence that there’s not enough undersea supply to justify the environmental risks of exploiting it.
As with most complex issues, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes.
For more than 20 years, the waters off America’s East and West coasts have remained largely off-limits to oil and gas exploration because of moratoriums issued out of environmental concerns. Only the western and central sections of the Gulf of Mexico, and a few areas off California, have remained open for energy production.
But sharp spikes in world energy prices over the last year, combined with growing concerns about the security of the imported supplies the U.S. relies on for more than 60 percent of its oil consumption, thrust the offshore drilling bans into the middle of the presidential campaign. However, oil prices, which were record-high at nearly $150 a barrel this summer, have now fallen below $70, bringing down prices for gasoline as well.
While Congress and the White House made some moves regarding drilling, no new offshore drilling leases will be issued until a new president and Congress decide the matter definitively.
To Sen. John McCain, who enthusiastically took up the chant of “Drill, baby, drill!” that echoed through the hall at the Republican National Convention in September, opening new coastal areas to oil and gas drilling is an imperative that, he said, will help lower oil prices “because when people know there’s a greater supply, then the cost of that will go down.”
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, has sought to offer more nuance on the issue, citing the need to transition the country to alternative energy sources and away from its dependence on oil.
“We’re going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling,” he said during the presidential debate Oct. 7. “But we have 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. So what that means is that we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem.”
No one knows just how much oil and gas lies within 200 miles of the U.S. coasts. The Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department has estimated that the off-limits areas could contain an additional 18 billion barrels of accessible oil, on top of 68 billion barrels still beneath the sea in the areas where drilling is allowed.
That new offshore oil would be enough to cover the nation’s energy needs for nearly 2 ½ years.
But the U.S. oil industry views that estimate as conservative, largely because it is based on decades-old research that has not been updated using the latest seismic exploration tools.
“The ultradeep water is one of the places you can find really big quantities of oil and gas,” said James Hackett, chairman and chief executive officer of Houston’s Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which operates Independence Hub. “We don’t know what’s out there. But we think it’s a place that can really make a difference for the world.”
Republican leaders contend that the expansion of offshore energy production would reduce U.S. dependence on volatile foreign oil suppliers, lower international oil prices by increasing supplies and boost the U.S. treasury via government auctions for leasing rights to new offshore areas.
“It’s absurd that Congress will not allow there to be drilling in the eastern portion of the gulf. In fact, it’s almost criminal,” said Rep. Ted Poe, R- Texas, who toured Independence Hub last week. “We need to drill offshore, take care of ourselves and create jobs.”
Foes of expanded offshore drilling, including environmentalists, many Democrats and governors of several coastal states, beg to differ.
They contend that opening up new coastal areas will have no immediate impact on oil prices because it would take up to a decade for energy companies to complete exploration surveys, build drilling platforms and begin production. What’s more, critics argue that the oil companies have failed to fully exploit all of the offshore areas they have already leased.
“Big Oil is stockpiling these leases, as they enjoy record profits, while Americans feel the pain at the pump,” Rep. Nick Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a radio address last summer.
“This whole ‘Drill, baby, drill’ mantra alludes to a future that’s not possible,” said Robert Kaufmann, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. “We are not ever going to be self-sufficient in oil.”
The oldest concerns are environmental. Opponents cite several disastrous offshore platform blowouts in the 1960s and ’70s, which fouled coastlines and destroyed fisheries in California, Texas and Mexico, as sobering reminders of the risks of offshore oil production.
Moreover, they maintain that the thousands of miles of coastal pipelines needed to carry the oil and gas from the offshore platforms, as well as vast networks of onshore refineries and storage plants, endanger sensitive wetland areas and threaten vital tourist areas.
“Offshore drilling is a needless risk, and there are better solutions to provide efficient, clean energy for America’s future,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Oil industry officials counter that modern drilling technology provides much greater environmental protection than a generation ago. They cite government data showing that oil spills equaled less than 0.001 percent of the total barrels of oil produced offshore from 1971 to 2007. And even a series of major hurricanes that pushed through the Gulf of Mexico in the last three years, although they damaged hundreds of offshore oil and gas rigs, did not trigger any major environmental disasters.