Offshore oil spills are not OK ‘Do no harm,’ says reader

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By Richard Johnson
News Analysis

OFFSHORE — I wanted to take a moment reply to Gordon Allison’s article, ‘Beware scare tactics in debate over offshore drilling,’ which appeared in the June 14 issue of The County Compass.

It is important to acknowledge that there are concerns about offshore drilling. Deepwater Horizon created incredible economic hardship in the Gulf Region. It was not BP or the hydrocarbon industry that ultimately suffered — it was the fishing industry, tourist industry, many mom and pop operations that felt the real pain. In other words, small business. Citizens concerns should be addressed fully, whether expressed by small business , ‘ Fear Monger’ environmentalists, or a retiree with a boat.

Belittling those you hope to convince, is no way to win an argument.


I will agree that the offshore oil drilling, transport, and the hydrocarbon industry, has had a good safety record. There are millions of barrels of oil used per day, which make it from the ground to the pump. But when there is an accident, often they are devastating to a region. Mr. Allison mentions that the Sabotage of the Kuwait oil fields, was 2.5 times more severe than Deepwater Horizon.The supposition being that Deepwater Horizon was OK in comparison because it was not the worst.

Whether a spill is intentional or accidental, it is still a spill. It is worse if it is an accident. That indicates that safety protocols were ignored, training lapsed, corners were cut to reduce costs, and in the Deepwater Horizon accident, people lost their lives. As I said, they have a good record, but not a record equal to the airlines. The hydrocarbon industry has made big mistakes and small spills are common.

The purpose of business is to build a product, for which there is a need, and to make a profit for the shareholders and owners. This is important. There must be incentive for the capital risk. In order to minimize the risks, companies incur cost. However, many times companies will either overlook risks, or will make an incorrect assessment of the risk. A company may try to decrease costs by inadequately treating waste coming from a plant. In the process they may contaminate the drinking water of the local community. In this case they have externalized their cost onto the community.

We have seen this happen in North Carolina. Maximizing profit at the risk and possible expense of the local community is not fair to those who have to bear that cost.

Mr Allison is correct, 41 percent of refineries are on the Gulf Coast. That is the choice of the hydrocarbon corporations. They build their plants where it makes the most economic sense. There used to be over 1000 refineries in the United States. Now there are about 141 in the United States. The fact is that operating efficiency has increased to the point where the 141 can do what the 1000 used to do — and more. The last refinery built in was completed in 2016 and went into operation in 2017. Oil is a commodity. The price fluctuates in relation to supply. It is in the best interests of the refining companies to be sure that supply does not exceed demand.

Mr Allison’s next argument is that drilling offshore of North Carolina makes sense since any oil spills would be taken out to sea. This is a strange argument. I understand what he is saying — North Carolina businesses s will not be hurt since the oil pollution will go out to sea. This is the argument that concerns me most. It is the thought process that out of sight is out of mind as long as the profits come home and damage goes elsewhere, whether on another shore or to the bottom of the Ocean. Therefore it is OK.

It would have been better to have stressed the strides in safety the hydrocarbon industry has made since Deepwater Horizon. It would have been better to have stated all the lessons learned and the operating policies and protocols put into place to protect the workers on the platforms, the environment, and small business to ensure the potential for an accident is minimized, and if so there is a plan and infrastructure in place to mitigate the damage and compensate those who will suffer economically.

Mr. Allison then goes on to describe the flows of the Gulf Stream and the location of platforms. At 100 miles off shore they would not be visible. This make sense. I would also agree there is no possibility of a refinery on the Outer Banks. But Wilmington, or near Beaufort is not a stretch. My concern is that we do not have a strong state record of regulation.

The Chemours spills of Gen X into the Cape Fear is an example. Chemours is working to get the problem resolved but a lot of the damage may have been done. In order to regulate sophisticated industries so that environmental damage and human lives are not harmed, there needs to be a strong, technically sophisticated Department of Environment in North Carolina to monitor industries like a refinery. The point is, do no harm. Or, do unto others as you would you would have others do unto you. Trust, but verify. Any refinery should internalize all its costs so that the citizens of North Carolina do not end up bearing the cost.

Mr Allison is correct that oil seeps occur. What he does not tell you is the Institute for Energy Research is 501C nonprofit set up by the Koch Brothers, who are generally free market in their views and hold a dim view of regulation. The seeps mentioned at 62 percent is the high end of the scale. There are varying opinions from 11 percent to 50 percent. His values may be a little high but I will accept them. His argument being if the seeps are Ok then why not human oil discharge? The answer is this: The oil seeps have been occurring at a slow rate for millions of years. The environment and nature have been able to adapt. Human spills tend to be very high volume and short term. In the event of a spill, the environment is overwhelmed, and is destroyed. It is a local event. The recovery takes decades.

Mr Allison mentions drilling to reduce pressure of seepage. This is an idea proposed by SOS California (a group that seems to be associated with the drilling industry). There does not seem to be any peer reviewed articles on this, only proposals. But most oil drilling activity already occurs near the seeps. So it does not seem to follow that further drilling will reduce the seeps. The reason oil drilling occurs near the seeps is because that is the oil that is easy to find!

Mr Allison is correct — I do not like the fact that 33 percent of oil pollution comes from shipping, automobiles and storm water run-off. We can do better. Oil water separator technology exists. It is a matter of implementation and enforcing existing laws.

Finally, Mr Allison ends with some talking points. He brings up National Security and our Friends in Europe. For decades we did not export hydrocarbons. We have recently changed that. Wouldn’t it be better if we kept our oil here in the United States? Because of fracking — not a perfect technology — we are awash in oil and natural gas. If we kept our natural resources here, we would have oil at costs below the world levels. We would not have to worry about OPEC or Russia. We have enough domestic oil to last at least two hundred years. Which brings me to my last question: Why do we need to drill off the coast of North Carolina?

Here are my talking points. There is no oil emergency in the United States. Yes, gas has become more expensive but that is more to do with global political problems than domestic production. Drilling in North Carolina would not bring oil down to $1 per gallon. Also, drilling in North Carolina would take probably a decade to start so no immediate relief.

But if the State decides that drilling is the direction to go, then we should go with eyes wide open. Hydrocarbon production does not have a perfect record and at some point in time there will be a spill. Oil spills and the economic and environmental damage should not be just another cost of doing business. Spills are not OK. If the hydrocarbon industry wants to come in and drill and make a profit, then they need to be 100 percent responsible for all aspects of the operation and in the end, do no harm.

That is the safe and cautious attitude and approach. Plan for the worst. We as a State have a responsibility to the citizens of the coastal communities to make certain that the oil companies follow best practices to mitigate the risk. My real concern is that the mixing of politics and money will allow corners to be cut, no one will take accountability, and we the coastal citizens will end up with oily tar balls in our fisheries, on our beaches, in our creeks and rivers.

Editor’s note: Mr. Johnson is an area resident and can be reached by e-mail at: