Ocean current experts warn of risks if eastern Gulf is opened to drilling

Jun 17, 2009 By William E. Gibson, Sun Sentinel

While Congress considers opening the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil-and-gas drilling, experts on ocean currents warn of a potential environmental nightmare that could reach the coast of South Florida.

If a rig in the eastern Gulf springs a leak, the spill could turn into an oil slick that gets caught in a fast-moving current that runs south to the Florida Keys. The current turns into the Gulf Stream, which could drag the polluted mess through the Florida Straits and carry it north to the beaches of southeast Florida.

This scenario is all too realistic, oceanographers say.

Because of the powerful "loop current" that wraps around the southern end of Florida, experts predict that even a small oil spill along the state's west coast would threaten the delicate ecosystem of the Keys and potentially pollute the eastern shores.

This long-standing concern has flared again because of renewed attempts in Congress to expand offshore drilling.

A Senate committee is expected to approve a major energy bill Wednesday that would open the eastern Gulf to rigs as close as 10 miles from the Panhandle and 45 miles from other parts of the west coast. The drilling measure, one part of a wide-ranging bill, would drastically shrink the drilling buffer, which now extends more than 125 miles from shore.

House and Senate leaders hope to pass an energy bill by the fall. Controversy over the Senate's offshore-drilling provision could jeopardize the legislation, a top priority for President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.

The provision was introduced by a Democrat, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, who said he saw no reason for concern since the rigs would be far beyond eyesight from shore.

Some Democrats and most Republicans in Congress want to tap offshore resources, especially large deposits of natural gas south of the Panhandle. The eastern Gulf contains an estimated 3.8 billion barrels of oil and 21.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Oceanographers and environmentalists say Congress should take into account the Gulf currents before moving ahead.

"The loop current creates a potential hazard of drilling close to shore. If we had an accident, it would come downstream," said Billy Causey of Key West, southeast regional director for the U.S. Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "We know that oil kills mangroves, which don't come back quickly."

Causey and oceanographers say drilling would need to remain more than 125 miles out to sea to be free of the loop current, which feeds into the powerful Gulf Stream that rushes between Florida and Cuba and then turns north.

"The problem is the loop current does come very close to the Dry Tortugas and all of the Florida Keys as it moves into the Florida Straits," said Frank Muller-Karger, professor of marine sciences at the University of South Florida, who served on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. "When it wraps around Florida and becomes the Gulf Stream, it goes very close to the (east) coast of Florida and doesn't peel off until it gets to Cape Canaveral."

He said satellite images show that water discolored from pollution sometimes flows from the Mississippi Delta along the loop current and Gulf Stream all the way to the North Carolina Coast.

"There's nothing to prevent an oil spill from doing that," Muller-Karger said. "It's well within the realm of possibility."

Improvements in deep-water drilling and the creation of tankers with double hulls have greatly reduced the chances of a major spill, but smaller ones still occur.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept across the Gulf in 2005, the high winds destroyed scores of offshore rigs, damaged hundreds of pipelines and spilled 741,384 gallons of petroleum products into the sea, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service. One of these spills poured about 76,000 gallons of condensate, a toxic form of liquefied gas, into Gulf waters.

Alarmed by the potential impact on beaches and tourism, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson has threatened to filibuster the energy bill _ a delaying tactic that requires 60 votes to overcome _ because of the offshore-drilling provision.

"Florida is a tourism state, and people have a need to be concerned about the environment," said Wes Tunnell, director of the Center for Coastal Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. "They might want to be stricter about things over there."

Experience with drilling off the Texas and Louisiana coasts indicates that chances for a major spill are slim, he said.

"Of course, it only takes one," Tunnell said. "I wouldn't say it's risk-free."

___

(c) 2009, Sun Sentinel.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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User comments : 14

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3432682
4.5 / 5 (8) Jun 17, 2009
Drill Drill Drill
Chey
3 / 5 (8) Jun 17, 2009
I wonder how these so called experts can even get out of bed in the morning. They see doom in every effort of humanity. They're either zealots, fools or liars. Very hard to distinguish which.
vanderMerwe
3 / 5 (8) Jun 17, 2009
I am getting really pissed off with the current fad insisting blanket application of the "precautionary principle" to everything we do. Basically what these creeps are telling everybody is to do absolutely nothing. You'd think they were Jain, the way they behave. It would be really nice if there were some way to deny people who insist that we don't produce energy the energy they so hypocritically use every day.
zevkirsh
3 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2009
if they didnt drive so goddamn much in florida , we wouldnt be thinking of drilling for oil, no?
drill and it and burn it boys!
brianweymes
3 / 5 (8) Jun 17, 2009
Im sorry you boys can't cope with the inherent risks in our changing world. If it messes with your moods and worldviews that much, perhaps you'd be more content to close your eyes and chant "there's no place like home, there's no place like home." The world is not carefree, nor safe, the sooner you realize this the more likely you are to survive.
Nartoon
2.5 / 5 (8) Jun 18, 2009
"eastern Gulf contains an estimated 3.8 billion barrels of oil and 21.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas" looks like small numbers compared to "spilled 741,384 gallons of petroleum products into the sea" and "One of these spills poured about 76,000 gallons of condensate". Wow the spills look enormous compared to the reserves available, yet divide these spills by 45 to get barrels and you see in comparison how small these spills actually are. Nice deception PhysOrg!
aufever
2.6 / 5 (5) Jun 18, 2009
I find it remarkable that these Anti-Drillig Zealots won't follow the reccommendation of a UC California professor to drill in the Santa Barbara Channel to relieve the pressure of natural seeps that produces some 3000 gallons dailey of heavy crude that fouls the beaches. They don't have about modern drilling methods and are stuck in the 60's.
RJ32
not rated yet Jun 18, 2009
Crude is measured in BARRELLS. Product is measured in GALLONS. Unless you have a political axe to grind.
dbren
2.3 / 5 (6) Jun 18, 2009
In other news, Caveman Ogg warns other cavemen that use of fire could lead to burning down the village; recommends that mankind become "cooking independent".
GrayMouser
1 / 5 (2) Jun 19, 2009
Something they don't bother to point out is that natural petroleum leakage in to the oceans is higher than the leakage from oil drilling and the oceans consume that oil just like it does from leakage from tankers.
However, this should not be taken as justification to stop trying to prevent leakages.
MNIce
1 / 5 (1) Jun 20, 2009
Who would you rather have drilling for oil between Florida and Cuba? An American oil firm with great fear and loathing of lawsuits, or a Chinese firm that buys the cheapest equipment available, never mind that the quality might not be up to the task? Remember, the Chinese could be as close as 45 miles if they operate under a Cuban concession, and no Act of Congress could stop them unless it would be a Declaration of War. I say get the oil before the Chinese show up.
brianweymes
3 / 5 (4) Jun 22, 2009
aufever, the author of the very study you refer to came out against that manipulative conclusion:

http://www.geol.u...yk/Seeps pubs/Luyendyk_BOS.pdf

Here is an interesting quote from it:

"It is true that natural oil seepage may be the major source of oil in the ocean: to what degree is uncertain. However, labeling this natural floating oil to be pollution is not so simple. Ecosystems have adapted to ongoing hydrocarbon seepage as they have done at Coal Oil Point. On the other hand, a sudden accidental spill of even a small magnitude is something that natural systems experience as acute stress and could have far greater impact than continual natural sources."
brianweymes
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 22, 2009
Here is another link, the other broke.

http://74.125.95...._BOS.pdf luyendyk "natural oil seepage"&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us
SDDuude
not rated yet Jun 23, 2009
The Chinese and Indians began drilling in the gulf of Mexico 2 years ago. They're about 50 miles off the Keys. On a positive note, if they should uncover a large find, it still goes to world supply theoretically having some effect on world oil prices. We just won't be sharing as much in the larger profits while still facing the exaggerated risk.

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