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How to Think About Oil Spills

The perils of overreaction.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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This article needs to begin with a big mea culpa. In the April 26 edition of The Weekly Standard (which went to press on April 16), I wrote: “Improvements in drilling technology have greatly reduced the risk of the kind of offshore spill that occurred off Santa Barbara in 1969. .  .  . To fear oil spills from offshore rigs is analogous to fearing air travel now because of prop plane crashes in the 1950s.” On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded, touching off the worst oil spill in American history.

How to Think About Oil Spills

Ouch. I’ve understandably been receiving indignant emails from environmentalists wondering whether I care to opine about the seaworthiness of the Titanic while I’m at it. The basic point was nonetheless correct. While we still don’t know the precise cause of the failure of the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon (a technology that has successfully prevented spills in more than 150 offshore drilling accidents over the last 40 years), early accounts suggest that the same factors that cause most airplane crashes came into play: complacency and sloppy maintenance.

Environmentalists have been quick to call the BP/Deepwater spill the offshore drilling equivalent of Three Mile Island, the 1979 nuclear accident that put the last nail in the coffin of the already declining nuclear power industry. The comparison with Three Mile Island is ironically appropriate. As some environmentalists have come to regret, the limitation of nuclear power after 1979 resulted in the expansion of coal-fired electricity instead, but coal is now environmental enemy number one because of its high greenhouse gas emissions. A halt to offshore drilling now would be equally ill-advised.

As with Three Mile Island, the hysteria of the media and the political class over the Deepwater spill is likely to lead to increased risk and adverse environmental tradeoffs. It is understandable that the Deep-water spill is generating such intense fury. The 24/7 “spillcam” is giving a whole new meaning to “live-streaming video,” and unlike tanker spills, which are bounded by the contents of the tanker, the open-ended nature of an offshore platform spill generates more dread. Even with the semi-successful effort to begin capturing some of the leaking oil, the Deepwater spill will probably persist until relief wells can be finished possibly in August. By then the Deepwater spill will likely have leaked over 200,000 tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 37,000 tons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound; the 1969 Santa Barbara spill (which was stopped in about 10 days) amounted to only 12,000 tons.

But the extraordinary nature of this platform spill—the first in this country in 40 years (last year’s Montara spill in the Timor Sea was the first major platform spill anywhere in the world in more than 20 years)—is no excuse to take leave of reason, or avert our gaze from thinking seriously about risk tradeoffs. Right now the United States gets more than 1.6 million barrels of oil a day from the Gulf of Mexico, and if we curtail Gulf exploration and production, we shall have to make up the difference with more imported oil. 

Despite post-Exxon Valdez safety measures, tanker oil spills occur more frequently and release more oil than offshore drilling accidents, by a wide margin. Over the last 50 years, offshore drilling spills, including the Deepwater Horizon, have unleashed a little more than 1 million tons of oil; tanker accidents have spilled 4 million. For every offshore drilling spill, there have been seven tanker spills, many much larger than the Exxon Valdez, only the 40th largest tanker spill on record.

Even if the Deepwater Horizon spill lasts into the fall, it will still not even be the largest offshore spill in the Gulf of Mexico. That dubious achievement belongs to the Ixtoc 1, a Mexican platform near Yucatán that blew out in 1979 in circumstances similar to the Deepwater Horizon (the blowout preventer failed after a gas surge from the well). It took Mexico’s famously inept Pemex almost 10 months to stop the leak, by which time 460,000 tons of oil had leaked—still the largest accidental spill in world history (Saddam Hussein deliberately fouled the Persian Gulf at the end of the first Gulf War with 1.2 million tons). 

The Ixtoc 1 spill started in June 1979. Oil began washing up on 125 miles of Texas coastline by early August. It is estimated that only 4,000 tons of oil made it to U.S. shores, which was about 1 percent of the total amount of oil spilled. About 30,000 tons was estimated to have reached Mexican shorelines. Pemex, by the way, refused to pay damages to the United States, citing sovereign immunity—an important contrast to the stance taken in the Deepwater spill by BP, which is assuming full responsibility (as it should).

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