The Consequences of 'Drill, Baby Drill': More Than 90 Oil Spills a Day in the U.S.

And that's just the fraction of reported spills. While big tanker disasters make the headlines, the daily toll of the oil industry is huge.

The 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska on March 24 got much attention, including reports that significant oil still pollutes the area and many fish and animal species and the Alaska Native economies that relied on them have still not recovered.

Meanwhile, the captain of the Cosco Busan cargo ship which slammed into San Francisco's Bay Bridge and caused a major spill in November 2007 is currently on trial.

Such dramatic accidents are what normally come to mind when people think of oil spills. But oil spills and ongoing leaks from pipelines, platforms, storage tanks and other infrastructure are actually a daily occurrence in Alaska, the Gulf Coast, California and other parts of the U.S.

Companies are rarely punished for such occurrences, yet these sources of contamination create serious and ongoing public health and environmental problems that communities are often left to deal with on their own. These spills happen from rigs, pipelines and infrastructure both on land and offshore, with the most serious health and environmental consequences coming when oil and related contaminants pollute waterways or seep into groundwater.

The Coast Guard National Response Center, which tallies all reports of oil spills, logged more than 33,000 in 2008. Pipelines and platforms accounted for more than 1,300 each, and storage tanks suffered more than 2,400 spills.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, a reported spill should be any "Discharges that cause a sheen or discoloration on the surface of a body of water; discharges that violate applicable water-quality standards; and discharges that cause a sludge or emulsion to be deposited beneath the surface of the water or on adjoining shorelines."

A 2002 report by the National Academies found that an average 880,000 gallons of petroleum enter North American ocean waters because of oil drilling and exploration each year, mainly from leaks in the Gulf of Mexico and off Southern California, northern Alaska and eastern Canada. (The report noted that other human sources, including land-based runoff, boat and jet ski engines and aircraft jettisoning fuel are a much more significant source, introducing about 30 times more petroleum into the ocean each year.)

Worldwide, the report said, 210 million gallons of petroleum enter the sea annually from the extraction, transportation and consumption of crude oil and related products. Oil also seeps naturally from the ocean floor into the water, about 180 million gallons per year according to the National Academies.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is currently considering how to deal with 300 million seafloor acres of offshore-drilling leases President George W. Bush opened up in his final hours in office. President Barack Obama placed a moratorium on new outer continental shelf offshore-drilling leases and extended the public comment period on the leases through September 2009.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Minerals Management Service, part of the Department of the Interior that handles oil leases, has been holding regional public hearings around the country, including one scheduled for April 16 in San Francisco. Even though increased drilling doesn't seem to fit with Obama's stated focus on renewable energy, it appears likely the government will end up allowing increased offshore drilling, including along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, off Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of offshore leases on the table are those in Arctic waters, where climate change and the effects of increasing industrial development are already taking a huge toll on ecosystems and wildlife. New oil lease sales are being considered in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska, and in Alaska's Bristol Bay, the world's largest wild salmon fishery. Environmental groups sued to try to block a major February 2008 lease sale in the Chukchi Sea, arguing it would be devastating to walrus, polar bears and other creatures.

Debate also continues over the prospect of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There is no effective way to clean up oil spills in ice-clogged waters of the north, according to environmental and watchdog groups. That means oil spilled in the Arctic is often just left there.

The famous Prudhoe Bay oil field of Alaska's North Slope -- where would-be vice presidential husband Todd Palin worked -- suffers more than one oil spill every day on average, according to an analysis of spills from 1996 to 2008 recently compiled by the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. The period includes only two years with fewer than 400 spills.

The trans-Alaskan pipeline that carries oil from the North Slope to the southern port of Valdez is also vulnerable to spills and sabotage.

"It adds up," said Pam Miller, Arctic coordinator for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. "Because of the remoteness of these fields and the lack of state personnel and motivation to do inspections and monitoring, the number of spills aren't declining. The upward trend has been pretty constant. It shows that oil by its nature, no matter how well done, is a dirty business."

The North Slope analysis includes on- and offshore accidents caused by corroded pipes and other problems. The federal government recently filed a lawsuit against BP over two oil spills from corroded pipeline totaling more than 200,000 gallons in March and August 2006. The state of Alaska is also suing BP, alleging negligence caused these spills and resulted in greatly reduced oil royalties to the state after operations were temporarily shut down. BP had already been fined $20 million for the spills after pleading guilty to federal misdemeanor criminal charges.

The Wall Street Journal reported the Justice Department had essentially backed down with this settlement, after initially considering felony charges that could have cost the company more than $600 million.

Any kind of settlement or payment is an exception. Normally, as long as a company reports a spill and is operating within its permit requirements, they are not fined or otherwise punished. "Sometimes they'll get a notice of violation, and they're given time to clean up their act, sometimes for a decade they're out of compliance," said Miller. "And there are very few (inspection) personnel in the field -- there's only one inspector for an oil field area larger than the state of Rhode Island. It's pretty much self-reporting by industry."

On the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and neighboring states, residents have learned they must do their own environmental monitoring to protect themselves from the effects of frequent spills and leaks from the extensive local oil industry. Coastal waters, marshes, rivers, agricultural fields and groundwater are regularly contaminated by accidents in the oil industry which release oil, diesel, other petroleum products and chemicals used in the refining process.

When a compressor blows, contaminants can be blasted into people's homes and gardens. In many cases, groundwater that provides drinking water to towns, subdivisions or trailer parks is contaminated. Usually this means the well will be plugged and the town connected to another water source.

Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who works with community groups to do their own testing, said the source of the contamination is rarely investigated, and no company is held responsible.

Meanwhile, people who live in rural areas with their own wells, or in private subdivisions with a communal well, must often do their own testing and find alternate water sources. Sometimes the responsible company or the state provides bottled water, other times citizens are on their own and community groups step in to help, Subra said.

Spills, leaks and other accidents causing contamination are a regular occurrence along the Gulf Coast, even in normal conditions. But when hurricanes hit, the consequences are devastating. Oil platforms and storage tanks are uprooted or damaged, drums of chemicals or petroleum products are tossed asunder and pipelines are damaged. Waste pits or lagoons storing petroleum waste are overwhelmed by storm surges, washing the toxic brew into communities, rivers and fields.

About 9 million gallons of oil were spilled during hurricanes Rita and Katrina, with 113 offshore oil rigs destroyed, and much of that contamination still has not been cleaned up.

The town of Meraux, near New Orleans, was practically submerged by floodwaters mixed with oil from Murphy Oil's nearby refinery, eventually resulting in a $330 million class-action settlement. Then in 2008, hurricanes Ike and Gustav spilled more than half a million gallons of oil, destroying 52 oil rigs and damaging 32 out of the 3,800 in the Gulf.

Those hurricanes also stirred up contaminated sediment from past storms and mixed it with water or washed it onto land. Subra noted that cleanup efforts of the past year have been hindered by red tape, like the fact that certain funds are allocated specifically for contamination from one hurricane season or another.

"This just added onto what still hadn't been addressed from Katrina," said Subra. "They were finally getting around to looking at (Katrina's effects on) water bodies with FEMA funds. But then when the debris was added by Gustav and Ike, they were saying we don't have authority to use the money for that. How do you tell which hurricane it came from?"

Since many residents of Louisiana's coast -- including significant Native American, Vietnamese and African American populations -- practice subsistence farming, hunting and fishing, the contamination from oil spills during hurricanes (and otherwise) has serious health and economic consequences.

"It smothered and killed a lot of organisms -- wildlife, fish, benthic organisms -- and people in coastal areas survive on organisms they can hunt and catch, so there have been a lot of illnesses," said Subra, whose Subra Co. works with groups nationwide to do environmental testing and push for government involvement.

People are at risk of ingesting oil-related contaminants through food and water and also breathing them in or coming in contact when the contaminants attach to soil and dust particles.

People working in fields, fishing or just going about their daily lives have suffered acute respiratory and skin problems. Longer-term respiratory diseases like chronic bronchitis are being seen, locals think, as a result of contamination.

And in the long run, a cancer spike is possible, since many of the chemicals from the oil industry are carcinogens. Spills typically include volatile organic compounds like benzene; PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which stay in the environment for many years; and toxic heavy metals like arsenic and mercury.

Now, Gulf Coast oil platforms, waste storage areas and other facilities are being built higher to protect them from storm surges. But efforts are voluntary, as there have been few regulatory changes affecting the powerful oil industry.

Subra and her colleagues have helped communities acquire the reports of spills or excess discharges, which companies are required to file with various state and local agencies. In many cases, residents end up notifying government agencies of spills before the companies do, she said. Community groups have taken to working directly with companies to persuade them to do a better job protecting against spills and leaks, an approach Subra said has had considerable success.

Many storage tanks for oil and related industries were built during the World War II era, when metal was being conserved for the war effort. Storage tanks often had no bottoms or tops, with oil or waste directly exposed to the earth beneath it. Many of those tanks are still in use today, and much of the resulting contamination has still not been dealt with.

New offshore-drilling leases would likely lead to more petroleum pollution along the Gulf Coast, local environmental groups say.

Meanwhile, even if the Department of the Interior does not open up significant new offshore drilling leases, companies already hold up to 70 million acres of leases on which they are not yet drilling, the majority in the Gulf of Mexico. Much of this area, far offshore, is expensive to explore and drill; hence, companies were holding out for more attractive leases closer to shore.

With oil prices currently low, interest in offshore drilling has also flagged. But unless the U.S. and major developing countries swiftly transition to cleaner fuel sources, higher oil prices and more pressure for increased drilling are only a matter of time. That will mean more drilling and likely more spills in on- and offshore facilities, not to mention the increased exploitation of Canada's oil sands, known for significant contamination of groundwater and rivers.

Chad Nelsen, environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation, said oil spills are just one reason of many for the U.S. to switch away from a petroleum-based energy economy.

"The 'drill baby, drill' crowd, with this whole 'drill here, drill now, pay less' slogan has really sold a pack of lies," he said. "New drilling off the coasts is not going to affect gas prices dramatically. They tried to capitalize on the $5 (per gallon) gas last summer, now it's down to $2, and there wasn't any new drilling."

He said the oil industry has perpetuated the myth that the country can "drill our way out of our need for foreign oil," along with the myth that technology has made oil a "safe" industry. He thinks companies are doing the best they can in terms of preventing spills, but the nature of the industry makes ongoing small and occasional catastrophic spills inevitable.

"It is true the oil industry has improved their safety record, it's true they're spilling less oil than before, but they're still spilling oil," he said. "The answer is to get off the stuff."

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.
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