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Date of Issue: February 11, 2009


Gulf of Mexico oil production, by the numbers

There’s a slippery slope of facts and fantasy swirling around offshore oil drilling and exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

 The discussion of oil drilling from waters off Anna Maria Island is about as crude as the gunk that’s imbedded deep under the floor of the Gulf.

 Consumers want cheap gas for their vehicles. More oil means more gasoline and less money spent at the pump, some say. Gas prices are again edging up from election-time lows. At nearly $2 a gallon, fuel is cheaper than the recent high of near $4 per gallon locally, but it’s still getting more and more expensive to fill up a vehicle tank. Some stations in the Florida Panhandle reported more than $5 a gallon for fuel at one point, and gas shortages were rampant throughout the Southeastern United States due to refinery and oil rig damage caused by Hurricane Ike last summer.

 More oil fields mean more available gas for our vehicles, power plants and furnaces for our neighbors to the north during those cold winters — or for us, considering the cold temperatures in the past week or so.

 But the expansion of oil fields can threaten both the environment and the Sunshine State’s tourist industry.

 Environmentalists are concerned with harm that could come from oil platforms and any pipeline oil seepage into the Gulf and, eventually, onto the shore of our fragile ecosystems of mangroves, marshes and seagrasses.

 According to the Palm Beach Post, the oil industry quotes from a 2003 study that indicates 1 percent of oil that polluted U.S. waters came from petroleum operations.

 Florida has something like a $50 million per year “industry” of tourism. Besides the theme parks, the state has its beaches, fishing and marine life to draw the crowds. Oil spills threaten the white sandy shores and could drive our winter friends away, yet we need the juice.

 What to do?

 

Some numbers

 We are becoming jaded with large numbers of late. A billion here, a billion there, and apparently we still aren’t talking about any real money. A mere $700,000,000,000 to prop up Wall Street? “Only” $1,000,000,000,000 to kickstart our economy? So what?

 Oil production and oil reserve quantities fall into that sort of numbers-too-big-to-grasp category.

 This article is breaking from newspaper style and stating full numbers with all those zeroes to make the point that we’re talking about really, really big figures.

 A set of statistics that are bandied about is that the United States produces about 3 percent of worldwide fuel, yet gobbles up about 25 percent of global product.

 The numbers crunch out like this: The United States consumes 873,600,000 gallons of oil per day; 552,300,000 gallons are imported; 313,320,000 produced in our country or off our shores. We have an estimated 913,520,000,000 in oil reserves — sort of a rainy day fund for emergencies.

 George W. Bush signed a bill in the final days of his presidential term that expanded oil drilling sites along the Outer Continental Shelf of the country, ending a ban that has been in place for decades. His action was thought by many to be destined to be overturned by the new administration and a new Congress this year.

Expanded oil fields, according to the National Taxpayers Union, could have the potential of providing 3,612,000,000,000 gallons of oil from offshore and 33,600,000,000,000 gallons of oil from shale.

General consensus is that any of that oil, if it were to withstand any governmental intervention, would take at least a decade to make it to a gas pump.

And here’s the disclaimer for the above numbers. A barrel of oil is 42 gallons. Refinement into gasoline yields 19.5 gallons per barrel.

 

Safe waters offshore, for now

Our near-shore waters are safe from drilling, for now. The eastern Gulf of Mexico has a special congressional drilling ban, enacted in 2006, which creates a buffer zone 125 miles off the coast of the Panhandle and more than 200 miles off West-Central Florida through the year 2022.

Congress and the president, of course, could reverse that ban.

 

Close call for Island

 Islanders have had a couple of offshore oil issues in the past few decades.

 In August 1973, Belcher Oil Co. of Miami announced plans to develop part of Port Manatee into an oil refinery. The proposal included using 10 acres of port land for refining crude oil into naphtha, fuel oil and asphalt, building an offshore oil platform 24 miles west of the Island that would accommodate super tankers that could carry up to 9,660,000 gallons each of crude oil and building two 48-inch-diameter underwater pipes from the refinery to Port Manatee.

 Cost of the whole proposal was estimated at about $300 million at the time. About 8,400,000 gallons of oil a day would be processed at the proposed refinery.

 The Belcher proposal needed county commission approval to proceed. Some commissioners said the operation would be a tremendous asset to the community. Others were fearful an oil spill would contaminate our fragile marine environment.

 Islanders were for the most part united in opposing the Belcher proposal. All three Island cities, and Longboat Key officials, passed resolutions opposing the refinery, offshore oil platform and underwater pipeline. Petitions were signed opposing the oil plan.

 A binding referendum was held Sept. 10, 1974. Manatee County voters opposed the oil plan, 11,235 to 10,512.

 Manatee County commissioners overruled the vote and approved Belcher’s proposal by a 3-2 vote. Belcher officials did not believe the 3-2 vote was adequate support for their plans and dropped the proposal until 1976.

 In the summer of that year, Manatee Energy Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Belcher Oil, received a lease from the Manatee County Commission in its role as port authority to construct a “crude splitter” at the port, one of the first stages in oil refining. The amendment to the lease was made without much discussion and was unanimously approved by the commission. The “crude splitter,” as proposed, would process up to 630,000 gallons of oil daily.

 Environmental groups fought the plan and lost. In November 1979 the “crude splitter” was built and placed in operation. However, after a few weeks, the plant was dismantled and sold — deregulation of the oil business had eliminated small refinery entitlements and it made the plant economically unfeasible.

 Belcher came back into the news in August 1986 with a request to transfer refined oil between barges at a location just off the northeast tip of Egmont Key. Called “lightening,” the proposal would have allowed larger ships to lighten their load of oil to smaller barges, thereby permitting the bigger ships to enter port as their draft would be less. The U.S. Coast Guard rejected the Belcher oil transfer proposal in September, stating the fragile environment of Egmont and nearby Mullet Key would be adversely impacted if any oil were to spill from the ships.

 

… and really close call a few years later

 Then there was the worst oil spill in the area’s history. On Aug. 10, 1993, three vessels collided about 1 mile northeast of Egmont Key in the Tampa ship channel — a phosphate freighter, the Balsa 37 piloted by Capt. Thomas Baggett; the tug Seafarer, piloted by Capt. Charles Chapman and pushing a barge carrying 10,000,000 gallons of aviation fuel; and the tug Capt. Fred Bouchard, piloted by Capt. Robert West, pushing a barge carrying 8,000,000 gallons of #6 fuel.

 Upon collision, the freighter Balsa 37 began taking on water and nearly sank; the Seafarer and its cargo of jet fuel burst into flames, and the Bouchard began leaking its cargo of heavy oil through a gash in the hull.

 The fire burned for about 17 hours before being extinguished with chemical foam. An estimated 225,000 gallons of heavy oil leaked from the Bouchard.

 Arbitrators determined that Baggett, the pilot of the freighter Balsa 37, was 65 percent responsible for the collision. Baggett was suspended for nine months following the collision. The tugboat-barge Seafarer/Ocean 255, piloted by Chapman, was 35 percent responsible for the accident. A third tug-barge combination, the Capt. Fred Bouchard/Barge B155, piloted by West, was judged not to have been at fault.

 The oil spill had little impact on Anna Maria Island, thanks to winds and currents that carried the oil spill offshore. Egmont and Mullet keys were not as fortunate, with cleanup costs pegged at about $100,000,000.

 Volunteers from area bird sanctuaries spent a great deal of time recovering, treating and aiding birds that were affected by the oil spill.

 

Massive new oil deposits discovered way down there

 “Massive” doesn’t quite suffice in a find literally uncovered in the Gulf two years ago by some oil exploration companies.

 The Jack Field is 270 miles southwest of New Orleans and 7 miles beneath the Gulf surface. It is thought that up to 630,000,000,000,000 gallons of oil could be pumped out of the field.

 There are also two huge oil fields off Mexico’s coastline in the Gulf that are still untapped and rival the Jack Field in size, according to estimates.

 

Again, what to do?

 Spending $50 or more to fill up a vehicle is a cringe-making experience, making us yearn for the “good old days” of a mere $2.50 per gallon for fuel.

 Expanded oil fields could ease that wallet-busting pricing — eventually. More oil fields are not a short-term fix.

 Alternative fuels are out there and are in the pipeline, but again solar power or wind-driven turbines aren’t going to help us next week or even next year.

 Oil executives say drilling is relatively pollution-free these days. Remember that 1 percent of pollution caused by oil rigs? In the Gulf, that figure works out to 546,000 gallons that could spew into the water. Some oil would likely come ashore somewhere after an incident.

 There are probably figures out there somewhere that place a price tag on an acre of seagrass or salt marsh or mangroves damaged by human action. Oil company executives probably created the figures.

 The whole issue of expanded oil exploration and drilling seems to bubble around what it costs at the gas pump versus what it costs to enjoy a pristine beach or a mangrove forest.

 You choose.

 

Sandscript factoid

There are 694 manned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and 3,800 total oil or natural gas platforms. Minerals Management Service estimates that as of Oct. 7, 90 of those oil production platforms ceased pumping in the wake of Hurricane Ike, and 54 were destroyed.

According to MMS, the rig shut-down — it’s called “shut-in” by oil folks — represents 45 percent of oil production in the Gulf.

The Gulf produces 54,600,000 gallons of oil per day, 25 percent of the U.S. total.

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