What Gulf spill? Around the world, deepwater drilling keeps on keepin’ on
Photo courtesy fjords via FlickrYou might think, given the size of the muck monster moving around the Gulf, that other countries would put deepwater drilling on pause, at least until they felt confident that oil companies could prevent a replay of the BP disaster off their coasts.
But you’d be underestimating the power of oil addiction.
I can’t quit you: Last week, the European Union’s energy commissioner said he’d like a moratorium on new oil wells in the North Sea, but he’s getting serious pushback from the British government. As Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson report in the Washington Post, the lure of oil lucre continues to trump worries about the high risks and potential catastrophes that come with deepwater drilling:
The strategy of continuing to exploit the economic opportunities of deep-water wells even as the hazards they represent becomes clearer is being pursued the world over. Other countries — including Brazil, Canada, Nigeria, and Angola — are also moving forward with drilling, lured by oil reservoirs they are discovering that are two to six times as big as the average Gulf of Mexico reservoir and taking advantage of new opportunities offered by the U.S. moratorium.
Here’s what’s happening in other countries that remain hooked on oil.
In too deep: It’s the biggest oil producer in Europe. It’s also a model when it comes to taking safety seriously. Norway’s one of only two countries — Brazil’s the other — that requires deepwater rigs to have a remote control acoustic switch on blowout preventers. (The football-sized switch, which uses sound waves to close a valve in the well, is the last resort safety measure that the Deepwater Horizon well did not have.) After the BP gusher, Norway was also the first country to stop issuing new leases for deepwater drilling pending results of the Gulf investigation. But even Norway, which gets more than a one-third of its income from oil, is allowing Royal Dutch Shell to start drilling an exploratory well 20 miles off the coast in water almost as deep as the Deepwater Horizon site.
One-note samba: When a massive oil reservoir was discovered off the coast of Brazil a few years back, the country’s president described it as “a gift of God.” Enough said. This gigantic deposit — some estimate there’s as much as 100 billion barrels of oil down there — has become the shiny jewel of Brazil’s economic and social future. The government is already promising that 50 percent of the interest from the revenue of this still-untapped reserve will go to educating the country’s next generation of scientists. The good news is that Brazil has tougher deepwater regulations than the U.S., and Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, is more experienced than any other outfit in the world when it comes to drilling into the ocean floor. Here’s the bad news: this drilling adventure would be way riskier than anything done in the Gulf of Mexico, as Erasto Almeida and Willis Sparks note in ForeignPolicy.com:
The technical challenges are considerable. Petrobras will have to reinforce pipes to withstand enormous deep-water pressure. Special alloys must be used to limit the corrosive effects of high levels of carbon dioxide. The unstable ocean floor above the salt will make rigs difficult to anchor. No oil company in the world has ever faced such complex challenges. Yet, Brazil is advancing full speed ahead, and its plans have broad public and political support.
Oil, Canada: With the Gulf moratorium, the only place in North America where new deepwater drilling continues is off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. And less than a month after oil started gushing into the Gulf, Chevron began digging an exploratory well in water almost twice as deep as the Deepwater Horizon site. Canada has asked its National Energy Board to investigate off-shore drilling, but the board is stacked with members who have ties to Big Oil.
Good luck with that: No country has seen more of oil’s dark side than Nigeria. It’s estimated that somewhere between 9 and 13 million barrels have been spilled in the Niger Delta in the past 50 years, and some 2,000 of those spills still need to be cleaned up. Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, promises to get tough with the oil companies — who happen to provide 80 percent of his country’s income. Fat chance. As Julia Baird writes in Newsweek:
… regulatory agencies are toothless, weakened by decades of rule by corrupt dictators who acted in concert with oil companies and siphoned off much of the oil wealth.
Okay, well, that’s that: Yes, the Gulf spill is tragic. But Libya’s oil minister, Shokri Ghanem, says that’s no reason to stop BP from drilling off his country’s coast in the Mediterranean Sea. The drilling project just started. Said Minister Ghanem: “Accidents happen all the time. If an air crash takes place, we don’t stop air traffic.”
Where have we heard that before?