The American economy runs on energy produced from oil, coal, natural gas, hydroelectric power, nuclear power and renewable sources like solar and wind energies. In fact according to a report in the Congressional Research Service, oil provides the United States with 40% of its total energy needs. It is used in myriad ways, providing "…fuel for the transportation, industrial, and residential sectors" (Ramseur, 2012). Because of the great need for energy to fuel the American economy, oil in "vast quantities" enters the country and moves through the country by ships and by pipelines, Ramseur explains in the Congressional Research Service. Hence, it is inevitable that some spills will occur, and they certainly do occur, notwithstanding the attempts by the industry to conduct its business safely.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the U.S. consumed 6.87 billion barrels (about 18.83 million barrels a day) in 2011, and that was a slight reduction from the 7.0 billion barrels consumed in 2010 (www.eia.gov). As for the amount of natural gas consumed in the U.S. annually, the EIA reports that Americans used approximately 24.38 trillion cubic feet in 2011 (www.eia.gov). There is no doubt that until such time as renewable sources provide far more energy for the nation, oil and natural gas in particular will be in great demand.
This paper reviews current environmental problems associated with oil and gas production and offers strategies for safer ways to regulate oil and gas production.
Thesis: Because of the risky strategies energy corporations take in retrieving oil and natural gas -- and due to the leaks, spills, blowouts, tankers running around and other errors and disasters associated with oil extraction and transport -- major new environmental regulations must be put on place regarding the drilling for oil. Moreover, current tactics for producing natural gas from existing wells -- a process known as "fracking" -- are not safe, do not protect the environment, have the potentiality of bringing harm residents and communities, and should be strictly regulated.
Supportive Argument #1 -- History and Impacts of Oil Spills
Far too many human and mechanical errors in the oil-producing and in the transport of oil are made each year -- which leads a concerned, alert citizen to ask for tighter regulations on this important industry. There were (not counting the BP Gulf disaster) 6,500 "spills, leaks, fires or explosions nationwide" involving oil and gas exploration and transport in the United States in 2010 -- according to research by CBS News. These incidents happened in 33 states that are oil and gas producing states; the 6,500 accidents in 2010 boil down to 18 every day (CBS News). The tally for those 6,500 accidents totaled "…at least 34 million gallons of crude oil and other toxic chemicals" that entered the environment -- "…triple the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill" (CBS News).
In July of 2010, about a million gallons of crude oil spilled from a pipeline near Marshall, Michigan into rivers and streams. The oil company responsible for that disaster is still cleaning up the mess, CBS News reports.
When asked for a response to the CBS News report, the American Petroleum Institute (API) of course vigorously defended their record, asserting that the industry has a "…strong safety record while providing the energy America needs." The API went on to state that "…proportionally, if the amount of oil used in the U.S. each year was equivalent to the amount of water in a backyard swimming pool, the amount spilled would be less than half of a teaspoon." The goal of the API is to reduce the amount spilled down to "zero incidents" (CBS News).
That Michigan oil spill occurred in the Talmadge Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River; the oil company responsible for the incident is the Enbridge Energy Partners. In 2011 a big spill polluted the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana; that incident occurred to an ExxonMobil pipeline which ruptured and cause more than 42,000 gallons of oil to cascade into the Yellowstone River (Ramseur, 19).
In 1967 one of the first major oil spills to receive international attention -- the Torrey Canyon spill offshore from England -- resulted in international laws regarding what agency is responsible when a vessel from a foreign nation causes environmental damage to a sovereign nation. The Torrey Canyon spill -- "119,328 tonnes of crude oil" from a 300-meter long supertanker -- "…imperiled a beautiful and popular tourist region" and the winds took much of the crude oil across the English Channel to France (Barkham, 2010).
The initial sad part of this story, Barkham writes in The Guardian, was that "…no one knew what to do," and there was "buck-passing" by several multinational companies that were implicated in the disaster. The ongoing sad legacy of this massive spill, Barkham writes, is that it is not "just a history lesson, it is living proof that big oil spills plague ecosystems for decades." Indeed, forty-three years after the vessel spilled its load of crude oil, that oil "is still killing wildlife on a daily basis" (Barkham, p. 2).
British Petroleum (BP) which owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, had chartered the vessel but did not own it (it sailed under a Liberian registration), "…disclaimed any responsibility for the oil pollution" (Barkham, p. 2). The use of detergent (which BP produced) did not absorb the oil, and according to Guardian journalist Dennis Barker, who covered the story in 1967, "…using detergent to break up slabs of oil in the ocean was like trying to pick up quicksilver with boxing gloves" (Barkham, p. 4). The parties involved in the attempted clean up used foam booms (which didn't work), and there was an attempt to drop aviation fuel and burn the oil but that failed, too, Barkham writes.
Finally some of the most powerful energy decision makers in England came up with the idea of dropping Napalm on the slick (Napalm had been used by the Americans in Vietnam to destroy jungle foliage); "When that came in there was a sheet of flames," according to Les Hosking, an energy professional; "I've never seen anything like it… the smoke went up into the sky for what seemed like miles" (Barkham, p. 4). In all, the oil slick despoiled an estimated 120 miles of Cornish coastline; an estimated 15,000 birds were killed, and untold tens of thousands of seals and other marine life perished.
The legacy of death and environment degradation from this supertanker disaster is ongoing in England more than forty years later, Barkham continues. The decision was made in 1967 to dump the oil that had been scrapped off beaches and from the surface of the Atlantic Ocean into a quarry, and it is still there. "Because of its thickness and stillness birds see it as a solid surface," hence, they land on it "and then the weight of the oil holds them down" said Jayne Le Cras, director of operations at the Guernsey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (GSPCA) (Barkham, p. 5). "It stinks" still today, Le Cras explained.
As for wildlife in the area where the oil sludge still stinks and is killing wildlife, there is a family of kestrels nesting nearby and "short-eared owls breed in adjacent pine trees"; when people passing by hear the "flapping of stranded birds they alert the GSPCA" but the staff can't get to the quarry in time in most cases and hence the birds are found dead face down in the pool of stinking goo (Barkham, p. 5). The only good news to come from the Torrey Canyon disaster is that "…international maritime regulations on pollution were created" (Barkham, p. 6).
Supportive Argument #2 -- Background on Oil Spills, Laws
The need for new and more stringent regulations was never more obvious than on April 10, 2010, when there was a horrific explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 4.9 billion barrels of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico; it was the most disastrous oil spill in U.S. history, according to Ramseur. The second most disastrous oil spill is still considered the 1989 accident involving the Exxon Valdez, which dumped approximately 11 million gallons (260,000 barrels) of crude oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska (Ramseur, 1).
Following the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 (the cleanup costs were estimated at $2 billion and the loss in terms of natural resource damages was estimated at $1 billion albeit placing a value on the natural world is entirely speculative) Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA). The new law made "comprehensive changes to U.S. oil pollution laws by expanding federal response authority and increasing spill liability" (Ramseur, 6). The OPA clarified the federal government's role in responding to oil spills and cleanup; OPA Section 4201 provided the U.S. president with the authority to order cleanup operations "immediately using federal resources" (Ramseur, 12).