No, Offshore Drilling Is Not Safe

The latest accident off Orange County's beaches and wildlife sanctuaries should remind us that fossil fuel extraction should end

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This morning’s Los Angeles Times includes a terrifying account of a massive oil spill off the coast of Orange County, California. Because the story is probably paywalled, here are some details:

The spill, first reported Saturday, originated from a pipeline off the coast of Huntington Beach connected to an offshore oil platform known as Elly. The failure caused at least 126,000 gallons of crude to spill into coastal waters creating a slick that spanned about 8,320 acres— larger than the size of Santa Monica—and sent oil to the shores of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach early Sunday.

But, as the story points out, the leak has probably existed for some time and only recently became dramatic in its scope. The slick has now invaded a 25-acre wildlife preserve and is, as you read this, killing protected species and destroying their habitat. Oil also renders beaches and waters unusable and toxic to animals and plant life up and down the Orange County coast.

Energy industry publicity flaks portray such catastrophes as the exception to an otherwise safe extraction process. Extraction isn’t safe: spills and leaks occur regularly. And there are not always plans in place to address projects that push the edge of the engineering envelope. Remember the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico? Testimony before Congress in 2010 revealed that regulators licensed the rig without knowing how the multiple agencies that fight oil fires would coordinate in the event of an explosion.

My question is: when is the federal government going to stop investigating these accidents after the fact and admit that energy companies, who keep insisting that what they do is safe, are routinely poisoning and killing the earth at the point of extraction? When will Congress consider the possibility that publicly visible catastrophes, where we can always identify a culprit, conceal the everyday human and natural cost of fossil fuel extraction?

For close to a century, energy companies have shaped the public conversation about their industry around the unalloyed good of cheap energy and good jobs. Energy-producing states and politicians bankrolled by corporate fossil fuel entities thus appeal to the common sense of the consumer citizen. They champion extraction as filling the need for high-paying jobs, even though one could theoretically create high-paying jobs anywhere by raising wages—or compensate for lower wages by creating a broad safety net of universal benefits. Likewise, they champion the benefits of cheap energy, even though prices have risen an average of almost 4% a year since 1957.

In a word, American energy costs are not cheap. In 2018, before the pandemic, National Public Radio reported that almost one-third of American households had trouble paying their energy bills.

And the human cost of working in, or living around, the energy industry is high. Unfortunately, political cheerleading for the fossil fuel industry runs parallel to but tends not to intersect with conversations about the long-term health risks of those jobs. Unless you are wearing a suit and sitting in a glass tower in Houston or a rowhouse on K street, these risks are significant. The adverse effects of coal mining on those who do the hard work of getting it out of the ground have been evident since the 19th century, and yet some politicians still campaign on and profit from that industry (hello, Joe Manchin!)

Similarly, oil and gas workers have a higher risk of cancer and other illnesses, not just from inhalation and skin contact with the raw fuels themselves but from the chemicals used in the extraction process. These same dangers to humans, and we should presume natural life, occur in the communities that surround extraction and processing sites.

Aside from the health implications of fossil fuel extraction, which are substantial and in no way matched by our nation’s willingness to invest in safety protocols or health care, there is also the unavoidable leakage and spillage. Unfortunately, while massive spills like the one off the coast of Orange County make the news, they rarely make the political news. By that, I mean: why are we still pulling fuel from the ground when the technology exists to extract energy from wind, sun, and water? These environmental catastrophes have a political origin and political solutions.

Yet, by and large, government drags its feet and relies on individual solutions to structural problems: a tax credit for choosing to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle (ask yourself: how is the electricity used to charge that vehicle produced?) More tax credits for installing solar panels on your house. Walk or bike to work. Take public transportation (if you are lucky enough to have or can afford it.)

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All the while, the fossil fuel industry assures us that extraction is safe, and as a nation, we pretend that is true. Yet the industry knows that isn’t true: so-called “operator errors” are routine. For example, Copeland International, a company specializing in marine energy technology, notes, offshore drilling creates many risks. Some result from isolation and overlong shifts on remote platforms; others stem from complex, precision technology that these exhausted workers should not operate.

The Copeland website reveals that when industry professionals are talking to each other, this is what they say:

Offshore drilling equipment is complex and one seemingly small mishap can result in chaos. Venturing off to deeper waters requires even more advanced technology that is not invincible. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary to have regular training and tests to keep operations safe. 

The unpredictability of the weather presents engineering challenges to drilling equipment. Ice, hail, and storms threaten rig functions. It’s critical to test and re-test your machines to ensure they are safe under various offshore conditions.  

Climate change from non-renewable energy remains a critical agenda for federal policymakers. Burning fossil fuels, we know, erode the ozone layer that shields the earth from the sun. Because of this, warmer temperatures become routine, ice caps melt, and oceans rise. As we have seen in the last two decades, weather patterns also change and intensify. While some areas of the earth have seen severe drought, others have seen increased rainfall. Warmer oceans permit oceanic storms to absorb more water. Slow-moving storms dump it on coastal and interior cities whose wastewater systems are inadequate to the task of disposing of it.

But we need to add to that urgency a recognition that it isn’t just the act of burning fuel that is killing the planet: extraction causes significant environmental harm too. So it should push us to move even faster to shift overwhelmingly to energy sources that don’t come out of the earth.

The only thing that will stop catastrophic oil spills is if we stop drilling.

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Ripped from the obituaries:

  • You have read my musings about the long roots of Trumpism, but here’s a man I, and several conservative political junkies I asked, had never heard of: Angelo Codevilla, a political operative and policy wonk. Codevilla believed, Clay Risen of the New York Times writes today, “that American foreign policy was controlled by an insular, mostly liberal elite, which suppressed dissent, promoted groupthink and hamstrung the country’s military.” Codevilla died in a car accident on September 20, 2021. (October 3, 2021)

  • It’s hard to remember that Texas has a powerful progressive Democratic past. Feminist Frances T. “Sissy” Farenhold, who died last week at 94, was part of that. “In 1975, a Newspaper Enterprise Association panel named Ms. Farenthold one of the 50 most influential women in America,” writes Margalit Fox of the New York Times), “along with Coretta Scott King; Gloria Steinem; Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post; and the congresswomen Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm.” (September 27, 2021)