Offshore drilling in the United States federal waters has caused the most environmentally destructive disasters in North America. Yet, new policy is pushing for the expansion of offshore drilling, particularly off the coast of California.
Offshore Drilling History
In 1969, Union Oil’s offshore rig Platform A had a blowout that leaked 100,000 barrels into the Santa Barbara Channel, one of the most biologically diverse marine environments in the world. The spill lasted ten days and killed an estimated 3,500 sea birds, as well as an untold number of marine mammals. Unbelievably, the Santa Barbara spill is only the third largest spill in U.S. waters. It follows the 1989 Exxon Valdez and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spills. These incidents keep getting bigger.
More offshore drilling means a higher risk of catastrophe, additional contamination of air and water locally, and more greenhouse gas emissions globally.
Federal Moratorium on California Offshore Leases
Up until the beginning of 2018, further oil and gas development using offshore oil rig platforms seemed quite unlikely. After the 1969 oil spill from Platform A and the subsequent ban on further leasing in state waters, the risk of another devastating oil spill was too large for even the federal government to consider new leases. The fact that the moratorium lasted through 16 years of Bush presidencies is truly a victory. Across the aisle, expanding offshore operations has been opposed. In Florida, even Republican Governor Rick Scott teamed up with environmental groups to fight the Department of Interior’s recent sales of offshore leases.
Trump’s New Gas Leasing Program
Now, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is preparing a new 2019-2024 national Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program to replace the existing 2017-2022 program. This is an unusual practice, and part of Trump’s America-First Offshore Energy Strategy. The Trump administration opened up most of the US coastal waters for new oil and gas drilling with a recent draft proposal offering 47 new offshore block lease sales to take place between 2019 and 2024.
Where might these new leases occur?
The offshore federal waters that are open for oil and gas leases are shown in dark blue in the map below (Figure 1). Zoom out to see the extent.
Figure 1. Map of Offshore Oil and Gas Extraction
California’s Offshore Oil
Southern California has a legacy of oil extraction, particularly Los Angeles. It’s not just the federal government that is keen on continuing this legacy. While the state has not permitted the leasing of new blocks in offshore waters, Governor Brown’s policies have been very friendly to the oil and gas industry. According to Oil Change International’s Sky’s the Limit report: “Under the Brown administration, the state has permitted the drilling of more than 20,000 new wells,” including 5,000 offshore wells in state waters. About 2,000 of these offshore wells have been drilled since 2012.
This map developed in collaboration with Consumer Watch Dog juxtaposes the offshore wells drilled in CA state waters with those drilled in federal waters.
Southern California is the main target for future offshore leasing. The Monterey Shale formation, which underlies the city of Los Angeles and expands north offshore to the Ventura Coast, is thought to contain the largest conventional oil plays left IN THE WORLD! The map above shows the locations of state and federal offshore oil and gas wells and the rigs that service them. It also shows historical wells off the coast of Northern California.
Northern California, both onshore and offshore, sits on top of major reserves of natural gas, which may also be developed given the political climate. With an increase in the price of natural gas, operators will be developing these gas fields. Some operators, such as Chevron, have already drilled natural gas wells in northern California, but have left the wells “shut in” (capped) until production becomes more profitable.
For a more comprehensive coverage on environmental impacts of offshore operations, including those to sensitive species, check out the Environmental Defense Center’s Dirty Water Report and read our additional coverage of California’s existing offshore drilling, and offshore fracking.
Air Pollution from Oil Rigs
FracTracker, in collaboration with Earthworks, recently teamed up with the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace International to get up close to offshore oil rigs. As a certified Optical Gas Imaging Thermographer, Kyle Ferrar (Western Program Coordinator for FracTracker Alliance and California Community Empowerment Project Organizer for Earthworks), took footage of the offshore oil rigs.
Using infrared technology, we were able to visualize and record emissions and leaks of volatile hydrocarbons and other greenhouse gases coming from these offshore sites. We documented many cases of intense flaring from the rigs, including several cases where the poorly burning flare allowed hydrocarbons to be leaked to the atmosphere prior to complete combustion of CO2.
Below you can view a compilation of the footage we were able to capture from small pontoon boats.
FracTracker has looked at offshore oil and gas drilling from many different angles. We have looked to the past, and found the most egregious environmental damages in U.S. history. We have analyzed the data and shown where, when, and how much offshore drilling is happening in California. We have demonstrated that much of the drilling and many of the proposed leases are in protected and sensitive habitats. We have looked at policy and found that both Governor Brown and President Trump are aligned to promote more oil and gas development. We have even looked at the rigs in person in multiple spectrums of light and found that these operations continuously leak and emit greenhouse gases and other air toxins.
No matter which way you look at offshore oil and gas drilling, it is clearly one of the most threatening methods of oil and gas extraction in use today.
By Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance