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Hurricane Gustav: How Hurricanes Threaten Offshore Drilling and the Environment

By August 31, 2008

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In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 113 offshore oil and gas platforms, damaged 457 oil and gas pipelines, overturned storage tanks at onshore refineries, and spilled 9 million gallons of oil—nearly as much as the 10.8 million gallons spilled into Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez hit the rocks in 1989. One platform drifted 66 nautical miles before running aground on a beach in Alabama. (Sources: U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service.)

Add to those oil spills the "toxic gumbo" that Katrina and Rita left behind, a mixture of flooded sewers and chemical spills, and it's not hard to see how the threats to the environment and public health quickly escalated. Based on current projections, Hurricane Gustav, which is expected to hit New Orleans and Southern Louisiana early Labor Day morning, could be even worse.

Oil and Gas Companies Brace for Hurricane Gustav
Anticipating the potential damage, and drawing on lessons learned from the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, oil and gas company officials locked down their offshore platforms and halted production at their refineries.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Gustav is on track to cut a swath through approximately 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and to make landfall in the heart of Louisiana’s oil and gas industry, where many refineries and pipelines are located. Whether the advance precautions taken by oil and gas companies will be able to lessen the damage, and how much production delays and facility losses will increase oil and gas prices, remains to be seen.

The Myth of Invulnerability
Ironically, one of the most persistent myths skewing the debate over whether to open U.S. coastal waters to more offshore drilling is that offshore oil platforms, along with their supporting pipelines and onshore refineries, are at no great risk from hurricanes, earthquakes, or other heavy weather and seismic events.

As proof, the people who perpetuate this myth often point to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, claiming the 2005 storms caused no serious damage to offshore platforms, pipelines, refineries or the environment.

McCain Misinforms Voters About Offshore Drilling Risks
That’s clearly not true, according to official sources such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the Minerals Management Service, but even Republican presidential candidate John McCain has confused the issue by telling voters that hurricanes pose no serious risk to offshore oil rigs and are unlikely to cause oil spills that could damage the environment.

At a campaign event in July 2007, McCain said, “I would remind you that off the coast of Louisiana and Texas, they both had hurricanes that did not cause any real difficulties. So the environmental side of it I think is pretty well okay.”

At another event two days later, McCain said, “I'm aware that off the coast of Louisiana and Texas there are oil rigs, as we well know, and those rigs have survived very successfully the impacts of hurricanes, Hurricane Katrina as far as Louisiana is concerned.”

One Final Thought
U.S. leaders may eventually decide to increase offshore drilling, and they may have strong public support for that move if fuel prices continue to skyrocket. If so, that decision should include a clear assessment of the risks—including the serious environmental and public health risks posed by potential oil and gas spills caused by hurricanes, earthquakes and other weather and seismic events. Pretending such risks don’t exist doesn’t help anybody.

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September 3, 2008 at 7:56 am
(1) guidoLaMoto says:

So what’s the alternative? Go back to living in caves? Personally, I think it’s pretty stupid that we’re dumping so much money into rebuilding New Orleans just to satisfy the whining of the Left side of the aisle. While oil rigs were damaged, there were no “disasters” to the environment to report. Instead of complaining about the unrealized possibility of calamity, why don’t we congratulate our engineers on their designs that withstood the elements with so few problems? Remember, if you drive a car, you’re part of the problem.

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