Offshore drilling, particularly in deepwater, is one of the frontiers for oil exploration in what security expert Michael Klare calls “the era of extreme energy.” The deeper the water and the farther from land, the more complex the production challenges, leading to increased risk of catastrophic accidents.
Significant offshore oil development has occurred in many parts of the world including the Gulf of Mexico, along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, coastal Mexico, the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of West Africa, the North Atlantic, and coastal Brazil. Offshore drilling has been going on for more than a century, with the first saltwater operations organized in 1896 off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Offshore platforms are responsible for roughly 22 percent of oil production and 12 percent of natural gas production in the United States. As terrestrial reserves are depleted and drilling technology improves, offshore production is expected to increase.
In shallow water, offshore drill rigs are often anchored to the sea floor. In deeper water, floating platforms fixed by chains to the sea floor allow drilling in water depths of 10,000 feet or more. Drilling platforms are expensive to construct and the additional distance of drill pipe that must pass through the water column between the sea bottom and drill platform adds to the difficulty and cost of bringing oil to the surface. Logistical expenditures associated with getting supplies and highly trained crews to and from platforms also add greatly to the cost, in both money and energy, and are one of the reasons that deepwater drilling inherently has a lower net energy ratio (energy return on energy investment) than conventional oil production on land.
Offshore drilling magnifies the risk from accidents because ocean currents can easily distribute any spilled oil great distances. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico caused an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil to leak before the well was capped. As offshore oil production expands into Arctic waters, the ecological risks associated with an oil spill are magnified because cold temperatures hinder the biological breakdown of oil. Moreover, Arctic rescue, repair, and cleanup operations would be severely complicated by the remote distances and harsh weather conditions. Beyond the environmental and human risks, offshore development has aesthetic impacts. Every additional drilling platform industrializes the ocean, compromises beauty, and degrades the wilderness character of the marine environment.