Why is offshore drilling so controversial?

Offshore rigs like this one are the source of many heated discussions. See more pictures of oil fields and drilling.
David McNew/Getty Images

­Mention offshore drilling at a casual get-together­ and watch the excitement in the room dry up like an exhausted oil well. Despite the fact that more than 40 million acres are already available for development along the outer continental shelf (OCS) of the United States, talk of opening up the remaining protected coastline to energy exploration has become about as risky as the no-no topics of religion and politics. What is it about increasing access to the OCS that gets people so worked up?

A large part of the controversy stems from differing estimates of what increased offshore drilling would actually mean -- to both the economy and the environment. Proponents of drilling insist that increasing domestic production along the coasts would lower gas prices and diminish the country's reliance on foreign oil with little negative impact on the environment. Detractors argue­ just as strongly that any oil found would have a minimal impact on prices and domestic supply, and would devastate surrounding ecosystems.


Facts aside, the controversy is also fueled by closely held personal priorities. While the anti-drilling side might accuse the other of valuing its pocketbook over the environment, the pro-drilling faction might say the greenies are more interested in saving coral than saving the country.

But while priorities do play a large role in the topic's sensitivity, cut-and-dry facts would go a long way toward lessening the tension. Unfortunately, although the argument lacks nothing in the way of emotion, substantial facts are in short supply.

To start with, the two sides can't agree on how much oil the OCS might hold. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the current off-limits portion of the shelf in the lower 48 likely holds about 18 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil, but no one really knows for sure because comprehensive assessments haven't been made in years [source: EIA]. People can't say with certainty if the estimates are on target until they drill a well, and even then, what will come up isn't a sure bet.

Since the United States consumes about 7.5 billion barrels of oil each year, the untapped sea floor could conceivably supply the country's energy needs for a little more than two years -- that is, if the estimates are right [source: EIA]. Opponents of drilling think the recoverable amount could be lower and not even supply much. Proponents think the potential resources could keep the country going for even longer than two years.

Next, find out what kind of impact that extra oil could have on you the next time you fill up at the pump.

Offshore Drilling: Pumping, Prices and Promises

On July 14, 2008, President George W. Bush lifted the executive ban on offshore drilling. He urged the U.S. Congress to do the same in an effort to reduce oil prices.
Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

With gas prices hitting record highs, people are looking high and low -- and offshore -- for a way to bring the costs down. But according to a study by the Energy Information Association (EIA), they may want to look elsewhere. Even if the outer continental shelf (OCS) were opened to drilling, the study found, it would be several years before the country saw any oil. Even then, the amount of oil probably wouldn't be enough to influence the global market [source: EIA].

The EIA gathered its data by preparing a test case to see what would happen if the current ban on offshore drilling was allowed to expire in 2012. Historically, the ban on drilling the OCS in the Pacific, Atlantic and most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico has been reinstated each time it expires, but the EIA wanted to see what might happen if it weren't.


What the group determined contrasts sharply with the assertions coming from many politicians and oil executives about increased domestic supply bringing prices down. Instead, the EIA found that the increased drilling would have little impact before 2030. In fact, because of the technicalities involved in leasing wells, pinpointing where the oil is and actually getting that oil to the surface, production probably wouldn't even start until 2017. And according to the EIA study, even once the oil is flowing, the increased access would bring only 0.2 million barrels per day more than if the ban were still in place [source: EIA].

Despite the time lag, proponents of drilling say there's no time like the present. If the government hadn't banned offshore drilling back in 1982, they argue, much of that oil would already be on the world market. Some also argue that the simple act of legalizing offshore drilling might influence the market to lower prices. Even if the effects aren't immediate, they continue, drilling should begin now if Americans don't want to see their gas prices climb higher.

Not to burst their oil bubble, but many economists counter that since oil prices are determined on a global market, a country has to make some serious additions for its actions to make any appreciable difference. To really affect prices, the United States would have to add significantly to the worldwide production of oil. Considering that the world produces 82.5 million barrels of oil each day, adding 0.2 million barrels isn't really going to have much of an impact [source: EIA].

Not to mention the fact that accessing oil reserves thousands of feet underwater and an additional thousands of feet under the seafloor takes considerable time and money. According to the EIA's report, much of the oil that's currently off limits wouldn't even be economically worth developing at current prices [source: EIA].

­Monetary costs aren't the only costs involved in this controversy, though. Find out about envir­onmental consequences next.

Effects of Offshore Drilling: Energy vs. Environment

1969, the blowout of an offshore drilling platform in Santa Barbara, Calif. ultimately caused 200,000 gallons of crude oil to spread over 800 square miles (2,072 square kilometers) of ocean and shore.
Vernon Merritt III/Time&Life Pictures/Getty Images

Any time oil drilling is mentioned, you know there's going to be talk of its environmental impacts. When it comes to offshore oil drilling, that talk is even more heated, since you're not just digging underground but also thousands of feet underwater.

Whenever oil is recovered from the ocean floor, other chemicals and toxic substances come up too -- things like mercury, lead and arsenic that are often released back into the ocean. In addition, seismic waves used to locate oil can harm sea mammals and disorient whales. ExxonMobil recently had to suspend exploration efforts near Madagascar after more than 100 whales beached themselves [source: Nixon].


The infrastructure required to drill wells and transport offshore oil can be equally devastating. A series of canals built across Louisiana wetlands to transport oil has led to erosion. Along with the destruction of the state's marshland caused by drilling efforts, the canals have removed an important storm buffer, possibly contributing to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. The petrochemical plants built nearby add to the negative effects [source: Jervis].

Not so fast, say supporters of offshore drilling: Improvements in technology and better government oversight have made drilling inherently safe. In fact, since 1975, offshore drilling has had a 99.999 percent safety record [source: EIA]. The amount spilled has decreased from 3.6 million barrels in the 1970s to less than 500,000 in the '90s. Believe it or not, more oil actually spills into U.S. waters from natural sources and municipal and industrial waste than it does than from offshore oil and gas drilling. As far as the toxic chemicals are concerned, specialists say most of them are at insignificant levels since discharges are regulated by state and federal laws. The mercury released, for example, isn't enough to be absorbed by fish [source: Jervis].

Despite the improvements, detractors of oil drilling remain unconvinced. Although offshore operations themselves may not be involved in as many spills as they used to be, marine transportation of the oil they recover accounts for one-third of oil spills worldwide. The Mineral Management Service predicts there will be no less than one oil spill a year of 1,000 barrels or more in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 40 years. A spill of 10,000 barrels or more can be expected every three to four years [source: Jervis].

And while the 99.999 percent safety record sounds nice, that 0.001 percent can be pretty horrific for people living in the vicinity. A 1969 accident at a Santa Barbara, Calif., well spewed oil all over the beaches and into the water, effectively making any chances of future access to that state's offshore areas highly unlikely. Likewise, the effects of the infamous Exxon Valdez spill back in 1989 are still seen today.

­Whether the United States will decide to risk more of its coastline for promises of price relief remains to be seen -- one thing you can count on, though, is that people won't stop arguing about it any time soon. For more on the offshore drilling debate, immerse yourself in the links on the next page.

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More Great Links

  • Ba­ker, David R. "The lowdown on offshore oil reserves." San Francisco Chronicle. July 22, 2008. (July 30, 2008) http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/07/22/MN6M11SN60.DTL
  • Baker, Dean and Nichole Szembrot. "Offshore Drilling and Energy Conservation: The Relative Impact on Gas Prices." Center for Economic and Policy Research. June 2008. (July 30, 2008)http://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/offshore_drilling_2008_06.pdf
  • Energy Information Administration. "Offshore--Petroleum and Natural Gas Production." June 2008. (July 30, 2008)http://www.eia.doe.gov/basics/quickoil.html
  • "Impacts of Increased Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources in the Lower 48 Federal Outer Continental Shelf." 2007. (July 30, 2008)http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/otheranalysis/ongr.html
  • "Petroleum Basic Statistics." 2007. (July 30, 2008)http://www.eia.doe.gov/basics/quickoil.html
  • Jervis, Rick et al. "Worth the risk? Debate on offshore drilling heats up." USA Today. July 14, 2008. (July 30, 2008)http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/energy/2008-07-13-offshore-drilling_N.htm
  • Nixon, Robin. "Oil Drilling: Risks and Rewards." LiveScience. June 25, 2008. (July 25, 2008) http://www.livescience.com/environment/080625-oil-drilling.html