Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Gulf of Mexico, presently the site of an ongoing oil disaster of unimaginable scale and as yet unknown consequence, should be the birthplace of the offshore drilling industry.
Drilling for oil in the lakes, marshes and bayous of Louisiana dates to the 1920s, when operations were restricted to near-shore, and technology was limited to adaptations of land-based methods and equipment: mules, marsh buggies, wooden derricks and steam boilers.
By the conclusion of World War II, oil was firmly established as vital to both national security and the economy, and in 1947, a threshold was crossed when Kerr McGee completed the first offshore well that couldn’t be seen from land. From that point forward, the Gulf coast quickly transformed from a coastal wilderness into an industrial powerhouse, as technologies developed in the Gulf spread to other parts of the world.
What is truly stunning is the rapid expansion of offshore drilling in the Gulf. Perhaps the best illustration of this is a fascinating animation, put together by tsin at Swordpress, showing the annual growth of active wells in the Gulf from 1942 to 2005, along with their locations and depths. In the animation, the larger the dot, the deeper the well.
Gulf of Mexico Oil Rigs: 1942-2005
Note that the animation ends with the 3,917 wells in service and 100 sites proposed as of 2005; not displayed are an additional 2,641 wells that were drilled but were retired prior to 2005. Data for the animation came from the Minerals Management Service (MMS) and the British Oceanographic Data Centre.*
“Xtreme Greenies” Not to Blame
Some proponents of the “drill, baby, drill” approach to energy exploration have actually blamed the Deepwater Horizon disaster on environmentalists, claiming that restrictions on land-based and close-in offshore drilling have forced oil companies to explore in deeper waters, and thus, venture into unknown territory. 2008 vice-presidential candidate and former half-term governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, posted to her Twitter account, June 1:
Xtreme Greenies: see now why we push ‘drill,baby,drill’ of known reserves & promising finds in safe onshore places like ANWR? Now do you get it?”
The following day, in a lengthy post on Facebook she wrote:
Extreme deep water drilling is not the preferred choice to meet our country’s energy needs, but your protests and lawsuits and lies about onshore and shallow water drilling have locked up safer areas. It’s catching up with you. The tragic, unprecedented deep water Gulf oil spill proves it.”
Vitriol aside, such claims are absurd by any measure. The Ixtoc I blowout of 1979, was the worst Gulf disaster prior to Deepwater Horizon and took nine months to stop — despite being only 160 feet below the surface.
Environmentalists had nothing to do with allowing BP to drill in 5,000 feet of water without a remotely feasible response plan should something go wrong, nor were environmentalists responsible for BP’s decisions to take risks with a known, problematic well in the months, days and hours leading up to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Environmentalists didn’t stop the industry from developing new containment and remediation methods during the 30 years since Ixtoc I, nor have they had anything to do with the numerous inland spills that have occurred — including those in the pipeline running across Palin’s own state.
… looking at the platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, shallow water drilling has NOT been abandoned for deep water. Rather, the option for deep water drilling has simply become more feasible in the past few decades.”
Indeed. The vast reservoir of black gold in the massive Macondo oil field provided the incentive and technology provided the means — but a reckless rush to cut costs caused the blowout, and hubris left the industry unprepared for a disaster that they said could never happen.
From where I sit, I’d say the “greenies”, who for decades have called for energy conservation. alternative fuels from renewable sources and stricter oversight – and have a longstanding distrust of the oil industry — are the ones who get it. I’d say we’ve gotten it all along.
* A more recent update to MMS data shows that there are 3,579 active platforms, 3,319 removed platforms, and 123 proposed platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.