The oil and gas industry's offshore safety and environmental record in the Gulf of Mexico has become a key point of debate over future drilling, but that record has been far worse than is commonly portrayed by many industry leaders and lawmakers.
Many policymakers think that the record before the BP oil spill was exemplary. In a House hearing Thursday, Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., said, "It's almost an astonishingly safe, clean history that we have there in the gulf." Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the industry's "history of safety over all of those times" had provided the "empirical foundation" for U.S. policy.
But federal records tell a different story. They show a steady stream of oil spills, which dumped 517,847 barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico between 1964 and 2009. The spills killed thousands of birds and soiled beaches as far away as Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Altogether, they poured twice as much oil into U.S. waters as the Exxon Valdez tanker did when it ran aground in 1989.
The industry's record had been improving before the BP spill. In 2009, the largest one was about 1,500 barrels, about what BP's damaged well was leaking every hour before it was capped last week. But at least a handful of spills take place annually as a result of blowouts, hurricanes, lax pipeline maintenance, tanker leaks and "human error," according to figures kept by the Minerals Management Service, now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Moreover, in at least one key instance, the official statistics understate the actual quantities of oil that have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. MMS statistics say that a 1970 blowout on a Shell Oil well that killed four people triggered a spill of 53,000 barrels. But Robert Bea, a University of California at Berkeley professor who at that time worked for Shell tracking the oil spill, says that the spill was 10 times that size and contaminated shorelines on the Yucatan Peninsula as well as U.S. Gulf Coast.
"I see the numbers, and I shrug my shoulders," said Bea, who contributed to a report issued last week on the April 20 Deepwater Horizon accident. The 1970 Shell blowout happened on a production platform, he notes. "We knew what the production rates were," he said.
Today, regulators rely heavily on company estimates, although some environmentalists fear that the spill size might be underestimated.
The industry's track record is a crucial issue. On March 31, President Barack Obama cited advances in offshore drilling technology as a key reason for his willingness to open up new offshore areas to exploration and production.
Now, the oil and gas industry is trying to use its earlier record to persuade Obama to lift a temporary moratorium and to convince the public that companies can continue offshore drilling without a similar incident.
"The oil industry has drilled 42,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and this is the first time an incident of this magnitude has happened," said the American Petroleum Institute's president, Jack Gerard, who has been urging Congress to avoid imposing tough new regulations.
The BP oil spill is the biggest ever, but MMS records tell a more complicated story. Performance had been improving but from a poor baseline.
One big spill was 160,638 barrels in 1967 when an anchor tore a hole in a corroded pipeline operated by Humble Oil, a unit of Exxon; it leaked for 13 days. In 1969, a blowout on a Union Oil well spilled 80,000 barrels, killing 4,000 birds and seeping for four years after being plugged. In 1974, a Pennzoil pipeline break spilled 19,833 barrels probably because an anchor was dragged across the submerged line. Another anchor tore open an Amoco pipeline in 1988, spilling 15,576 barrels. A Shell pipeline leak in 1990, discovered when a helicopter noticed a heavy oil slick 25 miles by 15 miles, spilled 14,423 barrels.
One frequent assertion among some oil executives and lawmakers is that technology has advanced since then. They hold up Hurricanes Rita and Katrina as evidence that offshore exploration rigs and production platforms can now handle the worst Mother Nature heaves at them.
"I think people are reassured that not a drop of oil was spilled during Katrina or Rita," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in 2008. "Those rigs in the gulf, there was not a single incident of spillage that anyone reported."
But while the overwhelming majority of safety valves did work during the two hurricanes, the MMS reported that there were five modest-sized spills, each between 1,000 and 2,000 barrels. There were also 125 small spills, many from riser pipes or storage tanks on platforms. Altogether, they added up to 16,302 barrels, almost a quarter as big as the 1969 spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., that helped give rise to the modern environmental movement.
In recent years, spills persisted at a more modest rate. From 2006 through 2009, there were 33 spills of more than 50 barrels each.
Maintaining that performance could be difficult moving forward. As the gulf infrastructure expands, it is harder to keep track of what's happening far below the sea. Bea notes that there are 35,000 miles of pipeline on the gulf's outer continental shelf and that "those pipelines traverse a very, very interesting series of hazardous environments."
They also require maintenance, and monitoring can be difficult. In 2007, after receiving reports of five small oil slicks, regulators got word of a larger one covering 30 miles by 6 miles. They discovered that the oil was leaking from a 30-year-old 41/2-inch pipeline owned by Lafayette, La.-based Stone Energy and lying under more than 300 feet of water. At first Stone denied it had a problem, but divers found four holes in a 100-foot-long section on the seafloor.
A later MMS probe revealed that Stone had failed to do annual checkups of cathodes designed to combat pipeline corrosion and had not done vital maintenance even after being ordered by regulators to do so. Divers found that anodes, also part of the anti-corrosion mechanism, "were 100 percent depleted," the MMS said.
Stone's reply addressed the question of negligence, but it's hardly reassuring about the safety of offshore infrastructure. The company said that underwater ultrasonic wall-thickness readings taken by divers showed that "this damage was not due to corrosion."
"Our conclusion is that the damage to the pipeline was not caused by corrosion, but by mechanical damage, such as an anchor dragging over the pipeline during Hurricane Katrina," it said in an e-mail to the Washington Post.
Bea says that the issue of safety in offshore drilling is similar to safety issues for airplanes or aspirin: There is a "line of acceptability" balancing risk and consequences. "The thing that is concerning is that we continue to work close to that line," Bea says. "Because of airline regulation, we get in an airliner with a level of comfort. I don't have that same level of comfort when I go out to these offshore activities."