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What the Louisiana Oil Spill Tells Us About Tranquillon Ridge

by: Robert Cruickshank

Sun Apr 25, 2010 at 09:00:00 AM PDT

Following up on Brian's post about the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast, oil has now been confirmed to be escaping from the well.

About 42,000 gallons a day appear to be flowing into the ocean, which is quite a lot less than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, but could quickly rival the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which spilled about 200,000 gallons into the Santa Barbara channel. That spill led to the moratorium on offshore drilling in California in the wake of the environmental and economic catastrophe it caused.

As a recent Calbuzz article noted, the Louisiana spill is germane to California because of the current debate over the Tranquillon Ridge offshore drilling plan. One of the most common arguments put forth by supporters of the Tranquillon Ridge plan is that new technology means that offshore drilling is safer and much less likely to produce a repeat of 1969:

"When I started this process, I was against offshore oil drilling," Meg Whitman told reporters in Santa Barbara last year, "and then I began to understand deeply the new technology that is available to extract oil from existing wells." (Calbuzz, 4/23/10)

Funny thing about that - the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and caused this newest spill is itself a very new platform. Built in 2001, it was regarded by industry insiders as a leading example of cutting-edge oil drilling technology:

The Deepwater Horizon was a marvel of modern technology. It was what they call an ultra-deepwater dynamic position semi-submersible oil rig.  It was the size of two foot ball fields and was like a ship that used a computer controlled system to automatically maintain its position and heading. It was a rig that could reach the bottom of the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to depths many had even imagined. In September of last year Deepwater Horizon made history by drilling the deepest oil well in history. This was an achievement not unlike landing a man on the moon or a successful space shuttle.

Yet even this state-of-the-art oil rig wasn't totally safe. Deepwater Horizon has a history of problems, many caused by human error. In 2005 a distracted crane operator accidentally caused a fire that did a much smaller amount of damage. Last week's explosion is still under investigation, but it took place during a risky but necessary "casing" process. Significantly, it was a similar maneuver that touched off the 1969 Santa Barbara spill.

In other words, offshore oil drilling presents an inherent and ongoing risk to the environment and the economy. We don't know whether Transocean, which built the rig, or BP, which operated the rig, were committing the kind of safety violations that we witnessed at Massey Energy's West Virginia coal mine, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. And if that wasn't the case - if all safety procedures were followed and workers had excellent conditions - then that merely reinforces just how much of a threat offshore oil drilling is to the California coast.

So far, the debate over the Tranquillon Ridge project has tended to be focused on the details of the agreement - when PXP will close down operations, whether the agreement is fully enforceable, how much the state and local governments will get paid.

But what the Louisiana spill reminds us is that there are much more fundamental issues to consider here. Approving the Tranquillon Ridge project means we are again running a significant risk of a major and devastating oil spill striking what is one of the most unspoiled parts of the California coastline (the remote west-facing beaches of Santa Barbara County).

If a paragon of new offshore drilling technology can fail this catastrophically, it should cause Californians to seriously reconsider whether allowing new drilling off our coast is worth the considerable risk. As our oceans are already facing the stress of pollution, overfishing, and global warming, offshore drilling seems like the last thing we would want to do to our oceans, our beaches, our wildlife, and our economy.

Robert Cruickshank :: What the Louisiana Oil Spill Tells Us About Tranquillon Ridge
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A report read only in British media (0.00 / 0)
The Independent newspaper from London says that there was an explosion reported half an hour before the main one that sank the platform, appears to have killed 11 workers, and has lead to this massive leak. If this is true, then the well-covered reports of a last-minute scramble to evacuate workers shows a shocking lack of safety procedure that reminds me of the refinery disaster in Texas--also in a BP facility.

However, I have seen no coverage of this in U.S. media.

I did see an article this morning that says operators will use robot submersibles to try to shut valves to stop the flow of oil. However, if that doesn't work, drilling another well to siphon off the leaking crude seems the next best bet. Even the operator admits this could take months. At 42,000 gallons a day, this "leak" could get quite big pretty quickly.

I would certainly want to know a lot more about the potential for human error to cause tragedy. About safety regulations and procedures. And about the fallback mechanisms to prevent spills in case of a catastrophic failure. Until we hear better answers than what we're currently hearing in the Gulf, I don't see how the people of California can allow more drilling off our shores. Especially now that the U.S. Air Force has helpfully demonstrated that they can fly airplanes on ethanol.

the best way to sequester carbon (0.00 / 0)
is to leave the damn stuff in the ground where it belongs.

Both Tranquillon Ridge and Obama's offshore policy send a message (0.00 / 0)
to the American people: "There is always more oil. We will keep looking for oil. We will never run out of oil."  

Deepwater Horizon is a human tragedy, but the larger tragedy is the moral wrongness of continuing our dependence on fossil fools.  

Tranquillon Ridge Project (0.00 / 0)
While we have no dispute that off-shore oil drilling presents lots of unwanted risks to the environment and economy, you and our friends at Cal Buzz are missing the point of the EDC/PXP proposal.

The most important point here is that the drilling is already going on. The EDC plan will shut this drilling down. That's why our coastal protecting Congresswoman Lois Capps and many of our local environmental leaders strongly support this agreement.

Under current law, oil companies can drill for oil as long as they want. Legally, they cannot be forced to stop drilling. They can go on indefinitely- as long as there is oil in the ocean, they can drill for it. Put simply: There are no end dates to force these existing rigs to stop drilling. Under the plan with PXP, this oil company has agreed to an actual end date for drilling off the Santa Barbara coast. This is unprecedented in California or anywhere in this country!

What this agreement does is create end dates for existing platforms and drilling. There are no new platforms built under this agreement. Rather, this agreement assures that within the next decade and decade and a half, PXP's existing platforms will stop drilling and undergo decommissioning. The infra-structure that services these rigs will be dismantled, including two on-shore processing facilities. Bottom line: no further off-shore drilling will be possible from these facilities.

While the EDC has fought successfully for years to keep new platforms from being built, we can't force those already here to stop drilling.
So we've got aging facilities continuing to drill, especially with new technologies that allow large swaths of oil to be removed through new slant drilling practices.

In fact, EXXON just announced it has successfully slant drilled six miles further into the Santa Barbara Channel, guaranteeing their continued use of aging infra-structure for several more decades.

The EDC has been and continues to be the champion of the Coast of Central California and has led virtually every major battle in the State of California to protect our coast from the ravages of oil drilling. This agreement continues that tradition and begins the END of OFFSHORE DRILLING off our beloved coast.

While so much misinformation has been circulated, I hope this clarifies the EDC's work and the value of this groundbreaking effort. With the country apparently willing to develop more and more oil rigs, we here in Santa Barbara are leading the way to get rid of off-shore drilling.

While the best solution would be to force all the oil companies to stop their dirty and dangerous drilling practices NOW, this is just not reality. If there are better and more realistic political solutions to getting rid of these existing facilities, I hope those with them will step forward. In the meantime, if anyone  is really interested in the terms of the agreement, they should go to the EDC's website which has posted the entire agreement and an annotated version to explain the modifications which have made this plan even better. Their webside is : www.edcnet.org

Let's start realizing that we need outside-the-box solutions here. The EDC has led this battle for decades. They're continuing to lead it. When the EDC asked me to come on board in this effort, I was proud to do so. Having spent six years in the State Assembly leading the fight against off-shore oil drilling, I am honored to be able to continue that battle with such well-respected and committed environmental leaders as those at the EDC.

Hannah-Beth Jackson
Former Assemblymember, 35th District

PXP (0.00 / 0)
Actually many of us opposed to the T-Ridge project have been saying that we are concerned about the danger but no one has been listening, least of all EDC, who is so taken up with promoting this they have fogotten the dangers. The danger of an oil spill is greatest when the thru-put is greatest and that is in the early years of developing a field.  Even if the "deal" is enforceable (and it is not), it doesn't make sense from a safety perspective to trade the risk from drilling in a field that is diminishing for one that is new.  The only reason to oppose this deal, enforceable or not, is the issue of saftey so how it is logcial to support this?  

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