There’s nothing like announcing a plan that could bring new oil rigs to 300 million acres of ocean to start a loud conversation among ocean-lovers of all stripes. Which is exactly what President Obama did a week ago, reopening a debate that many of his supporters thought was moot once candidates McCain and Palin had been shunned.
By coincidence, I was in Louisiana when the announcement was made, where a $65 billion a year gas and oil industry is THE state’s major business and the Gulf of Mexico coastline has long been dotted by oil rigs (and oil spills). We have been filming in southern Louisiana for the past 21 months, focused on the relationship between man and the sea. In “SoLa” it is impossible to ignore the impact that oil and gas have on both the populace and the waterways.
The Obama administration’s plan could prove to be either be savvy politics or blatant pandering. In the immediate future it curries favor with pro-drilling interests and helps lure some pro-development Democrats – like Virginia’s Mark Warner and Jim Webb – to potentially support other climate change initiatives. The reality is that the first lease sale under the plan could take place off the coast of Virginia within a few months; the rest would not start lining up until 2012, but probably longer given anticipated state and court fights. The argument that opening up these new domestic resources will help push us away from dependence on foreign oil is a false one; even if all of the continental shelves proposed are tapped there’s only enough oil there to last for three years, enough natural gas for two. Not all Washington politicians were charmed: “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a ‘Kill, Baby, Kill’ policy,” said New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenburg.
And what’s the reality of having big rigs in your backyard, plus all the tanker and barge traffic that accompanies them? Use Louisiana as an example.
Some years ago the state set up the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office, to “protect Louisiana’s citizens and environment from the effects of oil spills.” Today the state leads the U.S. in annual oil spills; between 1991 and 2004 an average of 1,500 per year (and those are just spills in state waters, the stats don’t include federal waters – three miles offshore – where many of the oil rigs live and where many of the new drilling is proposed). While we were filming in July 2008 two barges collided near midnight on the Mississippi River, in the heart of New Orleans, spilling 400,000 gallons into the river and spreading 80 miles downstream within 24 hours.
The mother of all recent Louisiana oil spills? Hurricane Katrina, when more than 9 million gallons of oil were lost, nearly comparable to the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (11 million gallons). During Hurricane Rita another 1 million gallons leaked into Louisiana’s rivers and the Gulf … statistics which should give all coastal residents of the East Coast and Alaska pause.
I read a story the other day in a Scottish journal that prompted the cynic in me. It’s an incredibly relevant story in regards to my posting of a couple days ago about the coming nationalistic fights over who owns what in Antarctica. As the Antarctic Peninsula continues to change – warmer temperatures, more rain, less ice – it is becoming yet another place on the planet that individual countries are trying to make their own.
Drilling for ice cores and rock samples
The story in the Scotsman News was titled “Giant Drill Probes Land Time Forgot” and went on to detail how scientists from Edinburgh have been given the okay to drill through two miles of Antarctic ice in search of a prehistoric lake that lies below. Ostensibly they are seeking signs of microbial life in the three-hundred-foot deep Lake Ellsworth, a subglacial lake long covered by ice. A big debate about this project, and other drilling efforts – specifically mounted by Russian scientists - is that man’s exploration could instantly pollute the pristine lakes, spoiling them for science.
Since Antarctica is supposed to be all about science, it’s a great opportunity, exactly what nations are supposed to be doing on the seventh continent. The report dubs it potentially one of “the greatest discoveries of modern times.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard about – or seen – drilling in Antarctica. I’ve been in a few of the Russian bases in eastern Antarctica where there always seems to be some kind of drilling project going on. The super cold weather and drill bits breaking off in the hardened ice deep below the surface most often frustrate them. Americans are doing the same, based out of McMurdo or the South Pole station, taking ice cores and rock samples for scientific study.
The cynic in me, of course, wonders if there might not be an ulterior motive for fine-tuning the ability to drill in Antarctica. Today maybe it’s ice coring to help assess climate history or a microbial subglacial lake that is the goal. But once you’ve figured out how to drill through two miles of ice, might not oil or diamonds be a next logical search?
It reminds me of a visit we made to Palmer Station a year ago, the American science base on Anvers Island. We spent the day with a fascinating marine biologist who’d been coming to Antarctica for a decade; his specialty was an algae, which he thought could be useful as a cancer-curing agent. His work can be arduous, diving into the cold Southern Ocean on a near-daily basis; the project is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the university in Florida where he teaches. It is a valid, serious, long-term scientific effort. But when I asked who else funded his months-long studies, he admitted he couldn’t do the work without the support of private pharmaceutical companies, which – if his work is successful – will claim part ownership, and potential profit from, his discoveries.
The Antarctic Treaty was updated in 1991 to reinforce the notion that the continent is to be off-limits to exploitation for minerals and other commercial ventures. That line of course is tested on a daily basis down south, especially as the temperatures warm and ice slowly disappears.
The Scottish lake-drilling project is estimated to cost $10 million; if successful there are another 150 subglacial lakes under the ice in Antarctica. Their wonders are possibly soon to be exposed. Who knows what else will be discovered during their probing.