Suffolk Closeup: Disaster guaranteed — off-shore drilling


It’s been decades since a fisherman told me about seeing a ship east of Montauk similar to those he had seen searching for oil in the Gulf of Mexico when he was a shrimper there. I telephoned oil company after company and each gave a firm denial about having any interest in looking for petroleum off Long Island.

That was until a PR man from Gulf called back and said, yes, his company was looking for oil and gas off Long Island, and in fact was involved in a consortium of 32 oil companies, many of which earlier had issued denials to me.

It was my first experience in oil industry honesty — an oxymoron.

Then, after breaking the story as an investigative reporter for the daily Long Island Press about companies seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic, there were years of staying on the story. I traveled the Atlantic Coast, including getting onto the first off-shore drilling rig in 1971 set up in the Atlantic, off Nova Scotia.

The riskiness of offshore drilling was obvious on that rig. There were spherical capsules to eject workers in emergencies. And a rescue boat went around-and-around 24-hours-a-day. The man from Shell Canada said: “We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster.”

You might recall seeing movies from years ago about oil drilling in the west and the drill hitting a “gusher” and it raining oil on happy workers. But on an offshore rig that “gusher” would be raining oil on the sea and the life in it and then the oil would move to shore.

In the 1970s I covered weeks of public hearings at state houses in Boston, Massachusetts and Trenton, New Jersey, and also hearings on Long Island. I traveled down the coast to the Florida Keys, its turquoise waters in the cross hairs of the oil industry, too.

Congressional action blocked drilling in the Atlantic off the U.S. But now under the Trump administration, the push is on again. The New York State Legislature has just passed a bill prohibiting drilling in state coastal waters. But that’s only three nautical miles out. However, the measure bars development of infrastructure such as pipelines to service oil and gas drilling.

A co-sponsor of the measure, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), whose district includes Shelter Island, said: “Tourism is a major economic driver for Long Island; we also have very viable commercial and recreational fishing industries. The proposal for offshore drilling threatens both our economy and our environment.”

What has changed since I got that tip from the Montauk fisherman in 1970?

The U.S. is now awash in oil to the point where gasoline is being sold for a little over $2 a gallon. And the U.S. has become the world’s leading producer of oil and gas.

This is largely due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, also an extremely polluting technology, contaminating water supplies with 600 chemicals used for breaking apart underground shale formations for oil and gas. Further, fracking causes gas to migrate into water tables, with water containing gas coming out of faucets and erupting in flames when lit with a match. Also, many of the 600 chemicals are cancer-causing.

Climate change is now a crisis. Cities, counties and states — and overseas, many nations — are pushing for 100 percent renewable energy in a few short years. This can be accomplished. Vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen, fuel cells and other clean sources are the future, not petroleum-powered vehicles. The burning of fossil fuel in cars, trucks and power plants is the leading cause of the dangerous effect of climate change — global warming.

Meanwhile, it still costs 10 times more to do offshore drilling than to drill for oil on-shore. Why spend billions to extract oil and gas, instead of further implementing clean, green, renewable sources? Renewables are the fastest-growing energy sources worldwide.

Moreover, the claim of the oil industry that it can safely drill for oil and gas offshore has been demonstrated to be baloney. It’s drill baby, spill.

An excellent essay on that was published this month on the Ocean Conservancy website at “What Have We Learned From 50 Years Of Offshore Oil Disasters?” is its headline, with a sub-head: “As oil spills get bigger, Congress’s responses have gotten smaller.”

The article, by Michael LeVine, focuses on the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, and the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig and the massive spill that followed in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst oil spill in history, so far. There have been an enormous number of smaller spills.

These three big “spills evidence a clear and troubling pattern — a major offshore oil disaster occurs in the United States every two decades,” states the article. “Each spill is worse than the last, increasing from 3 million to 11 million to 210 million gallons spilled.”

Offshore oil drilling: regularly disastrous — and completely unnecessary.