What the Louisiana Oil Spill Tells Us About Tranquillon Ridge

Posted on 26 April 2010

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By Robert Cruickshank

Following up on Brian's post about the explosion and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana coast, oil has now been confirmed to be escaping from the well.

About 42,000 gallons a day appear to be flowing into the ocean, which is quite a lot less than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, but could quickly rival the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, which spilled about 200,000 gallons into the Santa Barbara channel. That spill led to the moratorium on offshore drilling in California in the wake of the environmental and economic catastrophe it caused.

As a recent Calbuzz article noted, the Louisiana spill is germane to California because of the current debate over the Tranquillon Ridge offshore drilling plan. One of the most common arguments put forth by supporters of the Tranquillon Ridge plan is that new technology means that offshore drilling is safer and much less likely to produce a repeat of 1969:

"When I started this process, I was against offshore oil drilling," Meg Whitman told reporters in Santa Barbara last year, "and then I began to understand deeply the new technology that is available to extract oil from existing wells." (Calbuzz, 4/23/10)

Funny thing about that - the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and caused this newest spill is itself a very new platform. Built in 2001, it was regarded by industry insiders as a leading example of cutting-edge oil drilling technology:

The Deepwater Horizon was a marvel of modern technology. It was what they call an ultra-deepwater dynamic position semi-submersible oil rig.  It was the size of two foot ball fields and was like a ship that used a computer controlled system to automatically maintain its position and heading. It was a rig that could reach the bottom of the ocean and the Gulf of Mexico to depths many had even imagined. In September of last year Deepwater Horizon made history by drilling the deepest oil well in history. This was an achievement not unlike landing a man on the moon or a successful space shuttle.

Yet even this state-of-the-art oil rig wasn't totally safe. Deepwater Horizon has a history of problems, many caused by human error. In 2005 a distracted crane operator accidentally caused a fire that did a much smaller amount of damage. Last week's explosion is still under investigation, but it took place during a risky but necessary "casing" process. Significantly, it was a similar maneuver that touched off the 1969 Santa Barbara spill.

In other words, offshore oil drilling presents an inherent and ongoing risk to the environment and the economy. We don't know whether Transocean, which built the rig, or BP, which operated the rig, were committing the kind of safety violations that we witnessed at Massey Energy's West Virginia coal mine, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. And if that wasn't the case - if all safety procedures were followed and workers had excellent conditions - then that merely reinforces just how much of a threat offshore oil drilling is to the California coast.

So far, the debate over the Tranquillon Ridge project has tended to be focused on the details of the agreement - when PXP will close down operations, whether the agreement is fully enforceable, how much the state and local governments will get paid.

But what the Louisiana spill reminds us is that there are much more fundamental issues to consider here. Approving the Tranquillon Ridge project means we are again running a significant risk of a major and devastating oil spill striking what is one of the most unspoiled parts of the California coastline (the remote west-facing beaches of Santa Barbara County).

If a paragon of new offshore drilling technology can fail this catastrophically, it should cause Californians to seriously reconsider whether allowing new drilling off our coast is worth the considerable risk. As our oceans are already facing the stress of pollution, overfishing, and global warming, offshore drilling seems like the last thing we would want to do to our oceans, our beaches, our wildlife, and our economy.


Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. This article was originally published in Calitics.

Offshore oil and gas in the United States provides a large portion of the nation’s oil and gas supply. Large oil and gas reservoirs are found in the sea nearby Louisiana, Texas, California, and Alaska. Environmental concerns have prevented or restricted offshore drilling in some areas, and the issue has been hotly debated at the local and national levels.