Column: In the long term, Florida offshore oil drilling is simply irrelevant

ORG XMIT: FLDM103 Tar balls sit on the beach in Perdido Key, Fla., Friday, July 2, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident is expected to continue to come ashore over the July 4th weekend and businesses are concerned about a lack of tourists. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
ORG XMIT: FLDM103 Tar balls sit on the beach in Perdido Key, Fla., Friday, July 2, 2010. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident is expected to continue to come ashore over the July 4th weekend and businesses are concerned about a lack of tourists. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Published February 14 2018
Updated February 14 2018

Like it or not, Floridians are being plunged back into the offshore drilling debate. People have painful memories of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, an uncontrolled oil and gas catastrophe that lasted 86 days, and even today the scientific community is still examining the consequences of 4.1 million barrels of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico’s collective ecosystems — and its lingering effects.

But there is a key factor that has not been addressed in the debate. Is there anything out there worth going after in the first place?

There are well-known geologic principles at play that dictate whether or not economically viable oil and gas have been trapped. Oil companies employ many of the world’s top scientists and engineers to conduct exploration and extraction. The low-hanging fruit in finding oil and gas was plucked long ago, which means modern exploration is enormously complicated, expensive and challenging.

An industry decision to drill is done very carefully. But if we can determine that there is really not much oil and gas surrounding Florida early on in the exploration phase — certainly in a game-changing sense — why waste our time with the debate? Unfortunately, this is not an easily answerable question. But we should try.

Overall our state produces a tiny amount of crude oil — 5,000 barrels a day — which is less than 0.05 percent of total U.S. crude oil production. Florida’s output comes mostly from the 14 or so onshore wells in Southwest Florida.

But what lies offshore?

We really do not know for sure. If there has been very little oil and gas found onshore Florida, basic geologic principles suggest that there would be little to find just offshore. There is a known, economically viable gas accumulation about 25 miles off the Panhandle coast that has not been tapped. However, in fundamentally different geologic environments in much deeper water (up to nearly 2 miles deep) more than 175 miles off Florida’s West Coast down another 19,000 feet into the substrate past the gulf’s floor there might be oil and gas accumulations worthy of close examination. But the economic viability might be challenging.

Unless a game-changing "mother lode" of oil and gas can be shown to exist, then the risks and the costs of extracting it are probably not worth the reward.

Ignorance is not virtue, so we should find out what is out there. Deciding what to do about it is a separate step. Foremost in our thinking, though, should be this fact: Protecting Florida’s continental shelf and coastal environments is paramount to our economic well-being. As stewards of the Earth, our species has an obligation to protect the natural ecosystem anywhere, regardless of human presence.

We need a long-term energy plan, spanning two or three human generations — 50 to 75 years — whose centerpiece is a transition from a hydrocarbon-based society to a renewable energy-based society. Eventually, the oil companies will morph into renewable energy companies. They already have been doing so.

These companies have immensely talented, smart, forward-looking people, and they have they resources to invest in the research and development of renewable energy. At some point — perhaps very suddenly — a time will come when renewable energy technologies and their costs converge favorably, creating a paradigm shift in energy production.

Other countries clearly see this transition on the horizon. So we need to develop new technologies, improve energy efficiency in existing infrastructure, and change our own personal behavior to be globally competitive.

In the past during rapid rises in the cost of oil and gas, we have opted for more exploration and drilling. Eventually, we should be ready to move to renewable energy sources permanently rather than to revert to this traditional response. And, not to be forgotten, such a move would play a key role in relieving the human influence on climate. The major oil companies should be viewed as critically important, viable partners and primary agents of this change.

Finally, at some distant point in time, perhaps sooner than we ever expected, we will have advanced to a clean, nuclear fusion-based energy source. This would render extinct most oil and gas wells, most of those huge wind turbines, many of those expansive fields of solar energy panels, and maybe even some gigantic hydroelectric dams and geothermal facilities. Fusion energy could be that transformative.

Let’s think big and let’s play the long game. Given this context, Florida offshore drilling seems irrelevant.

Albert C. Hine is a professor emeritus in the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.