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The Gulf Oil Spill Disaster

Written by Dick Pryor on Monday May 24, 2010


The eyes of the nation have been focused on the Gulf of Mexico for the past month, following the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig fifty miles off the gulf coast. The April 20 explosion killed eleven workers and caused three leaks at the bottom of the Gulf floor, about 5,000 feet below the surface. These leaks are gushing oil into the water at the rate of anywhere from 5,000 to 75,000 barrels per day, according to estimates. The actual amount of oil that has flown into the Gulf has not been determined.

While much of the oil is floating on top of the water, there is concern that huge “plumes” of oil are lurking under the surface, killing marine life as it spreads. Late Friday, heavy oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster began hitting the beaches and wetlands areas in south Louisiana. The oil is killing wildlife and vegetation as it moves inland. There is also concern that the oil will find its way into the “loop current” that flows around Florida and up the eastern seaboard. If the oil takes that path it could not only devastate the sensitive eco-system of the Mississippi Delta, but could ravage Atlantic coasts and their fishing and tourism industries.

Meantime, more than a month after the explosion, British Petroleum is still seeking effective ways to shut down the flow of oil from the leaking pipelines. Efforts to cap the well have not proven successful and the oil keeps pouring into the water. With each passing day, the chance increases that this may become the worst environmental disaster in American history - damaging wetlands wildlife and eco-systems and the industries that depend on the coastal regions in the Gulf of Mexico.

Congress and the Obama Administration are involved in pressuring BP to shut down the flow of oil, to clean up the mess and pay for the economic damage caused by the disaster. The actual economic, environmental and political costs are indeterminable, and there is talk in Congress of increasing the liability cap for offshore oil drilling operators from $75 million to $10 billion. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says 75 miles of the Louisiana coastline has been affected by the spill, reaching about 12 miles into the state’s marshes. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar says he is “not completely confident” that BP knows what it’s doing, while at the same time acknowledging that the Administration does not have the expertise to direct the capping and cleanup operations.

There is even talk now that the gulf coast region may never be cleaned of the oil that is pouring into the water and floating onto the shoreline. More than twenty years after the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, that region still suffers from oily residue in the water and on the beaches, and that area is thought to be easier to clean (due to its rocky terrain) than the gulf coast. The Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million barrels of oil into Alaskan waters. Estimates are that at least 6 million barrels has have poured into the Gulf, but nobody knows for sure.

This week’s Oklahoma Forum program examined the disaster from the standpoint of its impact on Oklahoma. Clearly, any moratorium on offshore drilling will affect those Oklahoma companies that have operations in the gulf, and any reduction in oil from offshore drilling will affect the price of oil and gasoline. As our guests pointed out, Oklahoma’s oil and gas production is likely to increase soon, due to rising prices, and the oil spill disaster may further escalate the need (and profitability) of drilling more in Oklahoma. Ironically, the state of Oklahoma, which derives much of its tax revenue from gross production taxes, could benefit if the amount of drilling increases here.

Our guests also discussed Oklahoma’s commendable efforts to clean up oil field areas in the last few years and to encourage safety at well sites. Lori Wrotenbery, Director of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission’s Oil and Gas Division; Pete Brown, Past-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB); and Bud Scott, Chapter Director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club discussed the business and ecological aspects of the oil spill and the lessons learned in Oklahoma from decades of oil and gas production. They agreed that overall Oklahoma’s energy industry has an exemplary safety and environmental record, especially in the last 15 years since OERB has cleaned up dozens of abandoned well sites at no taxpayer expense.

Thanks for reading, and watching Oklahoma Forum.

Until next time,
Dick Pryor

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