Is this in Florida's future?

As drilling moves into the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the chance of a massive spill is slight, but the day-to-day operations of oil and gas rigs could affect Florida's environment. By CRAIG PITTMAN

St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 2001

As drilling moves into the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the chance of a massive spill is slight, but the day-to-day operations of oil and gas rigs could affect Florida's environment. PORT ARANSAS, Texas -- As a stiff wind from the Gulf of Mexico whipped his snowy beard sideways, Tony Amos stepped over the clumps of gooey tarballs dotting Mustang Island's beach.

Waves of murky water crashed onto the coarse brown sand, washing up more clumps of weathered petroleum and a staggering array of garbage: 5-gallon plastic buckets, long wooden planks, sheets of plastic twisted in knots.

His bushy eyebrows twitching, the 63-year-old Amos logged a line or two about each piece of flotsam into a battered computer and noted their likely origin: offshore oil and gas rigs.

For 23 years, Amos, a researcher for the University of Texas, has been surveying the same stretch of coastline near Corpus Christi every other day, cataloging every bird and beer can -- and every oil company hard hat washing in with the tide.

Sometimes it's difficult to say where the debris first hit the water, Amos said, "but when some chemical drums are labeled Halliburton and other big company names involved in drilling out there, you know where it came from."

Over the past 40 years, companies like Halliburton have drilled about 10,000 wells across the western and central gulf. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were willing to overlook the trash and tarballs to reap a rich bounty of cash and jobs.

But strong opposition from Florida's business and political leaders has kept the eastern gulf largely off-limits to drilling -- until now.

Last month U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced plans to lease 1.5-million acres of a section known as Area 181, about 285 miles west of Tampa Bay, for oil and gas drilling. Negotiations between the White House and Gov. Jeb Bush scaled back the original size of Area 181, deferring for 10 years any action on sections less than 100 miles from Florida.

Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Commerce is weighing whether to allow Chevron USA to drill for natural gas 25 miles south of Pensacola. Florida officials have opposed Chevron every step of the way, and Chevron has sued the federal government over the delay in making a decision.

Both developments have heightened concerns about the environmental impacts of drilling in the comparatively pristine waters of the eastern gulf.

When people in Florida talk about the environmental effect of drilling, they usually mean they fear a massive oil spill will ruin the beaches, kill the wildlife and drive off the tourists.

"It is without question in most Floridians' minds that the possibility of an oil spill would be a devastating economic blow -- a spike right to the heart -- of a $50-billion-a-year tourism industry," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said during congressional debate over Area 181 last month.

But such large-scale disasters are rare. Smaller spills, mostly from tankers and pipelines, are far more common. Some environmental advocates say their biggest concern isn't a spill at all, but the day-in, day-out effects of the rigs' routine operation: pollution of the air and water, damage to the ocean bottom, debris that washes ashore.

However, oil company representatives contend they are good stewards of the environment. After all, it has been 21 years since the last big spill in the gulf.

"If there is some environmental impact, it's more than offset by" the millions of dollars in royalties the companies pay for leasing public property, said David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council. The royalties go into a fund for buying environmentally sensitive land in places like the Everglades, Mica said, noting, "That's the trade-off."

'Routine, legal pollution' "Because of all the precautions to prevent pollution and oil spills, nothing is destroyed by the oil and gas industry," the agency in charge of regulating the industry wrote to the sixth-graders from Gulf Breeze

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the opposite stance two years ago, opposing Chevron's application to drill near Pensacola.

EPA officials warned that Chevron's rigs would harm essential fish habitat and damage the fragile sea bottom. And they said routine chemical discharges would "introduce significant quantities of contaminants to these relatively pristine waters."

Even the states whose congressmen have sneered at Florida's resistance to offshore drilling are having a bit of heartburn over expanding drilling into the eastern gulf. Alabama politicians lobbied federal officials to lop off the top of Area 181 so no rigs would be visible from their beaches. Louisiana politicians are lobbying federal officials to compensate the state for all the wetlands that have been destroyed by the oil and gas industry.

From top to bottom, offshore rigs and all the things it takes to support them -- helicopters, tankers, barges and so forth -- have an impact on the gulf from their everyday operations, although it may be difficult to detect from onshore.

"Our biggest concern is the routine, legal pollution and the constant degradation of the water in the gulf," said Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, a Florida group that has opposed Chevron's plans to drill near Pensacola.

But industry spokesman Mica said the routine contamination put out by offshore rigs "is infinitesimal compared to what's produced by spills from pleasure craft."

Still, there are some pollutants that set the oil and gas industry apart from a pleasure boat that dribbles fuel into a waterway.

Offshore operations generate thousands of tons of air pollutants, including nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, which combine with sunlight to form ozone, a precursor of smog.

Several cities around the Gulf Coast -- including the Tampa Bay area and Pensacola -- already have serious problems with ozone, which irritates the lungs, especially among children and the elderly.

Sisskin and other drilling opponents say they fear the additional ozone created by the new rigs will make the air even worse. But the Minerals Management Service says the rigs' contribution to the air pollution over land is "quite small."

When the rigs first drill into the ocean floor, the crews use fluids called "drilling muds" to remove rock cuttings, lubricate and cool the drill bit, control pressure and seal the well. Because drilling muds often include toxic metals such as barium, chromium and arsenic, they are "the greatest potential source of contamination from drilling operations," according to the Minerals Management Service.

In its study of the Chevron proposal, the MMS predicted that all the offshore rigs put together "would contribute about 1.65-billion pounds per year of contaminants," which could lead to "the long-term, regional degradation of offshore water quality."

The rigs can discharge thousands of barrels of drilling mud overboard into the gulf every day. Once or twice during drilling, a well might dump out 500 to 1,500 barrels of mud an hour for up to three hours.

Once discharged into the water, the drilling muds do not disappear. When scientists checked the bottom around some exploratory wells that Chevron had drilled three years before, they reported that "the layer of cuttings at both sites was still quite thick . . . and drill mud (barium and barite) was present in substantial quantities."

Studies have documented that drilling muds have inhibited the growth of seagrasses and corals and have killed off the tiny creatures on the sea bottom that form the base of the food chain.

Once the well is drilled and begins pumping, it also discharges a new pollutant known as "produced water." Produced water consists of the brine and chemicals produced during the extraction process and can be high in dissolved solids and metals, such as vanadium, copper and arsenic.

Produced water "constitutes the largest single source of material discharged into the gulf during normal oil and gas operations," the MMS noted in its study of Area 181. MMS officials estimated that offshore operations in the gulf will discharge up to 547-million barrels of produced water overboard during the next 40 years. Operations in 181 alone are expected to discharge 12,500 barrels a day.

Studies found that the produced water discharges carried downcurrent for some distance and ended up contaminating sediments, especially when the discharge had continued for 10 years or more. However, the MMS says the ultimate impact is "very small."

The EPA requires those discharges to be treated to eliminate some toxicity before they are dumped in the water. Then the sheer size of the gulf is expected to dissipate their effects.

Yet Sisskin wonders about the cumulative impact of so much pollution pouring into the gulf day after day from so many rigs.

"How much can you put in before it can't clean itself anymore?" she asked.

Federal officials acknowledge they don't know exactly how much the gulf can absorb. But when Sisskin complained to the MMS that discharges from the rigs are turning the gulf into "a toxic soup," the agency replied that each rig attracts 10,000 to 30,000 fish, including grouper, sharks and barracuda.

If the water were poisoned, agency officials said, surely all those fish would stay away.

On the bottom One of the more controversial aspects of offshore drilling is what it does to the ocean bottom. Once again, the EPA and MMS disagree.

The bottom may contain corals, sponges and other small sea creatures vital to the survival of larger species. The MMS has a standard stipulation for offshore rigs calling for them to take certain steps to protect sensitive bottom areas from any disturbance.

But in February, EPA officials called the stipulation "deficient," pointing out that it carries no enforceable requirement that the rigs avoid any impact on the sea life on the bottom.

EPA officials contended that MMS was making decisions in the dark. They said there is "a relatively small amount of documentation of the habitat" on the bottom of the eastern gulf, and noted that recent exploration of the area where Chevron hopes to drill has "revealed a surprising array of . . . habitat."

But the Minerals Management Service contended that the major areas have all been mapped, and that the oil companies can be relied upon to detect any other important features before drilling.

The bottom can be scraped bare by anchors and dug up for pipelines. The MMS even predicts that several hundred tons of debris -- tools, pipes and so forth -- may wind up on the floor in Area 181.

But MMS officials say that should not be a problem because all the debris will be cleaned up two or three decades later when the rig is shut down and blown up, sunk or dismantled.

'The beach is filthy' The debris that lands on the bottom is just the garbage that won't float. The chemical buckets, hard hats, wooden planks and plastic sheets that are blown overboard by the wind or tossed off illegally have long been a major problem on the Texas coast, as documented by Amos' studies on Mustang Island.

Over the years, Amos has done more than 3,000 surveys of the same 71/2-mile stretch of Mustang Island, his pickup truck creeping past signs that say "Keep Your Beaches Clean" and boardwalk stations for washing off tar.

Amos' surveys have documented the steady flow of debris onto the beach from offshore rigs. He has found 5-gallon buckets oozing unidentified gray stuff, and empty buckets whose label says they once contained "liquid viscosifier" for drilling muds. He has found empty 55-gallon drums and once discovered a dozen empty freon cylinders in one day.

Communities like Port Aransas have to spend millions on beach cleanup or risk losing tourists like Diane Aguirre, 35, of San Antonio, who visited Mustang Island this month and vowed not to return.

"The beach is filthy," she said while walking her dog Precious, a Jack Russell terrier. "There are big clumps of tar and trash everywhere!"

"Oh, it's terrible," agreed Cindy Hill, 28, from High Point, N.C. "There's tar and stuff in the ocean."

Just south of Mustang Island is Padre Island National Seashore, which has a similar problem with beach debris. A National Park Service scientist, John Miller, spent years cataloging the trash washing up there. According to Miller, the oil and gas industry accounts for 9 percent of the debris now, less than a few years ago because offshore workers have become more careful.

But Amos disagrees. The only oil industry product he's seeing less of on the beach these days is oil.

"We haven't had the oil we used to have," he said. "We've had some pretty monstrous events."

Tar reefs, starving turtles The most monstrous event of all on Mustang Island was the Ixtoc I spill, the worst peacetime spill in modern history. Amos still has vivid memories of the June 1979 disaster.

It started 600 miles away in a section of the gulf called the Bay of Campeche, just north of the Mexican coast. Problems with drilling muds led to a blowout at a rig, which caught fire and collapsed. The fire and scattered debris made capping the well so difficult that it continued spewing for nearly a year, dumping more than 3-billion barrels of oil.

Two months after the initial blowout, the first tarballs began showing up on the Texas shore. Soon the state's entire coastline was coated. A thousand birds needed cleaning. Tourism dropped by 60 percent, leading to millions of dollars in losses.

Then a storm came along and pushed a lot of the oil offshore again. The crisis seemed to be over. However, Amos said, the beach cleanup ended too soon. The residue formed "tar reefs" just off Mustang Island. For about eight years, every time a storm hit, pieces of the tar reefs would break off and coat the beach with goo, he said.

Studies of smaller oil spills in Panama and Tampa Bay uncovered a similar phenomenon: oil that defied cleanup because it settled into sediments offshore, said Ted Van Vleet, a University of South Florida oceanographer who has studied both Ixtoc and the 1993 tanker collision that spilled oil in Tampa Bay.

"After three or four years you could go back out there and find oil that had been there since Day One, and it still had the same toxic components," he said.

Oil industry officials point out that big spills like Ixtoc are rare. According to MMS, there have been 11 spills of more than 1,000 barrels of oil from gulf rigs since 1964. The last one happened 21 years ago, when a hurricane hit a platform off the Texas coast.

But there are plenty of small spills. Since 1985, oil companies have produced 5-billion barrels of oil from the Gulf of Mexico and reported spilling about 5,000 barrels of it, or 210,000 gallons. The MMS estimates that over the next 40 years there could be up to 870 spills of 2,000 gallons or less in Area 181.

"The proposed action is expected to result in small pollution events that could temporarily affect the enjoyment or use of some beach segments in Alabama or Florida," a July MMS report on Area 181 said, "but have little effect on the number of beach users or tourism."

MMS computer models say a spill from Area 181 would likely wind up on a beach in Alabama, and a spill from the Chevron lease would most likely harm the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola before hitting anything else.

But it's difficult to be certain about the eventual destination of gulf spills, said Robert Weisberg, a USF oceanography professor who has studied the currents.

Gulf currents are steered by a complex mix of forces ranging from the Earth's rotation to the temperature of the water, he said. Generally, though, anything that falls into the eastern gulf eventually winds up passing through the Florida Keys on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

"We can track very clearly Mississippi River water going around the Keys," he said.

Most spills come not from the rigs themselves but from the pipelines and tankers that carry the product back to land. In October 1998, for instance, a broken pipeline off New Orleans spilled 155,000 gallons of oil, creating a slick that spread for 25 miles.

During the Ixtoc spill, Florida officials hired Van Vleet to check whether any of the oil from Mexico would wind up on Florida beaches. He found oil staining the eastern gulf, but not from Ixtoc.

Instead, it came from tankers illegally washing out their oil-coated ballast tanks at sea, he said. Gulf currents carried the oil around the Keys and bits of it fouled beaches from Fort Pierce to Key West.

That stretch of Florida coastline also had the highest number of endangered sea turtles washing up dead, Van Vleet said. Sea turtles don't understand that tar balls are not food.

"A lot of the turtles that were being collected had esophaguses and digestive tracts clogged completely with oil," he said. "They starved to death."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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