By Karen Edelstein, NY Program Coordinator
The extent of offshore drilling for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico is nothing short of staggering. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there are more than 3,000 active wells in the federally-regulated waters of the western and central Gulf. Additionally, there are over 25,000 miles of active oil and gas pipelines crisscrossing the Gulf of Mexico sea floor, and more than 18,000 miles of “out of service” pipeline there. To wit, NOAA’s 2012 State of the Coast website boasts, “If placed end to end, the oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico could wrap around the Earth’s equator.”
Oil and Gas Infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico
With such a level of activity, it is difficult to envision how all of this intricate infrastructure fits together, especially in the event of a disaster. There is a dire need to access and visualize such data as more and more wells are drilled unconventionally – both onshore and off. Below is a map of oil and gas drilling platforms both historical and active, pipelines, and active leases in the Gulf of Mexico.
For a full-screen view of this map, with a legend, click here.
The Worst Environmental Incident in US History
The April 2010 BP “Deepwater Horizon” blow-out disaster stands out as one of the icons of environmental risks that such intensive oil and gas production can pose to our oceans. The rig was set in over 4,000 feet of water, and close to 6 miles into the sea floor. A blowout occurs when pressurized oil or gas, mud, and water cannot be contained by the well’s blowout preventer. These materials blast through the drill pipe to the surface. There, no longer under pressure, they expand and ignite. Human or mechanical and design errors are at fault the majority of the time. Such was the case with the Macondo Deepwater Horizon disaster, now the worst offshore environmental disaster in US history.
In all, more than 200 million gallons of oil flowed into the ocean before the Deepwater Horizon well could be plugged. Eleven workers died, and 17 were injured. The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 82,000 birds, 6000 sea turtles, and nearly 26,000 marine mammals were impacted as a result of this spill.
Penn State University reported actual animal deaths as 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles, and 100 marine mammals. More than 1,000 miles of shoreline were fouled. Furthermore, as part of the process of breaking up the spill with chemical dispersants, more than 2 million gallons of toxic chemicals were sprayed into the Gulf. The long-term impacts of these dispersants on marine wildlife have yet to be determined.
Other Oil & Gas Exploration Accidents of Note
Natural gas spills also happen with some frequency in the Gulf, but they are considerably different from oil rig blow-outs. Unlike the persistence of oil in the marine environment, gas leaks are dissolved readily into the sea water, and once on the surface, quickly evaporate. Methane-eating bacteria in the water also help in the process. In July 2013, a rig 55 miles offshore, in 154 feet of water in the Gulf off the Louisiana coast, exploded and caught fire. The blaze went out of control and partially destroyed the rig. There was a thin sheen of hydrocarbons on the ocean surface initially, but it dissipated rapidly. A relief well was drilled, and the leak contained. While the effects on marine life may not be tremendous, the release of this amount of carbon to the seawater and atmosphere is yet another stress to global warming, moving us closer by the day to the tipping point of climate disaster.
Unfortunately, these types of leaks and explosions happen with regularity. A maintenance-related explosion happened in September 2011 in the Gulf, 100 miles off the Louisiana coast. All 13 crew on the platform were forced to jump for safety into the water, where they were later rescued. Fortunately, there were no deaths in this case. In September 2014, however, during maintenance at a Chevron natural gas pipeline off the Louisiana coast, one contractor was killed and two injured in another incident.
And Most Recently…
And just last week, on November 20, 2014, there was another report of yet one more Gulf of Mexico oil platform explosion, 12 miles off the coast. This time, one worker was killed and three injured at an explosion at Fieldwood Energy’s Echo Platform. The employees were cleaning a piece of equipment when the blast occurred.
According to news reports, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement related, “The Echo Platform was not in production at the time of the incident,” BSEE said in a statement Thursday. “The facility damage was limited to the explosion area and there was no pollution reported.”
Both the September and November incidents are under investigation.
GIS datasets for this post originated from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Learn more
For information on offshore oil and gas exploration in California and the associated danger and regulations, read the October 20, 2013 Fractracker blog entry Hydraulic Fracturing Offshore Wells on the California Coast, by FracTracker’s California staffer Kyle Ferrar.