Spilling the Good News

Amid all the bad news brought on by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, one piece of good news has gone largely unnoticed. The storms dealt a near-knockout blow to America’s biggest oil-producing region, but they didn’t produce any significant offshore spills.

This remarkable accomplishment shouldn’t be ignored in the upcoming debate over whether we should expand domestic oil drilling to new areas. The hurricanes swept through the central and western Gulf of Mexico, home to 25 percent of the nation’s domestic oil production, and the impact was extensive. More than 100 offshore oil facilities were destroyed, and many others have yet to start up again. Production is still low and won’t reach pre-hurricane levels for months.

“One might have expected the entire Gulf to be blackened with oil,” said Interior Secretary Gale Norton at an Oct. 27 hearing on post-Katrina energy issues. Instead, “there were no significant spills from any of our wells.”

The Interior Department, which has authority over most offshore drilling, had mandated a number of safety features to prevent massive spills from the sea floor, such as those that occurred off the Santa Barbara coast in 1969 and in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979. Katrina and Rita provided what Norton calls “the toughest test of our offshore safety,” and the results are encouraging.

Even before Katrina, producers had evidence things were on the right track. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study entitled “Oil in the Sea III” states that “improved production technology and safety training of personnel have dramatically reduced both blowouts and daily operational spills.”

Today, accidental spills from platforms represent about 1 percent of petroleum to be found in North American waters.

The hurricanes did cause many spills from ruptured oil and fuel storage tanks throughout the affected areas, and this is a matter of legitimate concern. But none are likely to result in substantial or long-term environmental damage.

This news should have broad implications for how, when and where we pursue other domestic supplies. The central and western Gulf is not, as many assume, the only offshore location with significant oil deposits. It’s merely the most prominent area not subject to severe federal constraints. America has significant offshore oil and natural gas reserves in restricted areas in Alaska, the Pacific, the Atlantic and the eastern Gulf.

Estimates vary, but there may be more energy in these off-limits areas than in those where drilling is allowed. Tapping into these reserves could lower prices and leave us less vulnerable when future disasters strike.

But first, we must deal with fears of oil spills. This is especially true in Florida and California, two states that rely on tourism and boast high coastal property values but also have significant offshore energy reserves. Unfortunately, concerns over oil spills have sparked strong opposition to new drilling.

In Senate hearings on the recently passed energy bill, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., illustrated the challenge ahead. She and her state remain opposed to offshore drilling, she said, because “an oil spill in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara killed thousands of birds, as well as dolphins, seals and other animals. We know this could happen again.”

It worked. Congressional delegations from these states managed to keep pro-drilling provisions out of the energy bill, which passed in August. These legislators even beat back a modest effort to allow states to opt out of federal restrictions and drill off their coasts. The hurricanes put the issue back on the table, and Congress will consider similar pro-drilling measures in the weeks ahead.

The House Committee on Resources, under its aggressive chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., has introduced a bill that includes state opt-out measures. “I’ve always believed that this should be a state decision,” he says.

It remains an uphill fight. So far, opponents have held the line against new drilling. Many remain wedded to outdated notions of offshore drilling being environmentally risky despite the significant gains in this area demonstrated during and after Katrina.

For all their fury and destruction, Katrina and Rita left us with two energy lessons. The first is that there are serious consequences to relying too heavily on one hurricane-prone region for such a large portion of domestic oil production. The second is that, given the safety record in the face of these two major hurricanes, we can expand and geographically diversify the nation’s domestic oil supply -- and do so with considerably less environmental risk than in the past.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst who specializes in energy and the environment at The Heritage Foundation.