Were There No Oil Spills From Katrina?
In the comments to my latest post on domestic oil production, in which I continue my skepticism over the benefits to more domestic oil production, a number of claims were made in the comments that raised some interesting issues. So I thought it might be worthwhile if I went ahead and investigated some of these claims and presented the evidence. Some of these claims are going to require more research than others, so I’ll be spreading them out over several posts.
For today, the claim I thought would be the easiest to look up was the continuous repeat of John McCain’s recent claim that there were no significant spills from offshore oil platforms due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Is this true?
Well, the U.S. Minerals Management Service commissioned a study of this very issue, which concluded that:
The impacts from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were typical of this historical experience. While cleanup was required. The volume of oil spilled and impacts to shore from the offshore infrastructure were categorized as minor.
Case closed, right? Well, not exactly. Reading further into the study reveals the total extent of the damage:
As a result of both storms, 124 spills were reported with a total volume of roughly 17,700 barrels of total petroleum products, of which about 13,200 barrels were crude oil and condensate from platforms, rigs and pipelines, and 4,500 barrels were refined products from platforms and rigs. Pipelines were accountable for 72 spills totaling about 7,300 barrels of crude oil and condensate spilled into the [Gulf of Mexico]. Response and recovery efforts kept the impacts to a minimum with no onshore impacts from these spill events.
How can we evaluate whether this amount spilled was truly “minor”? The criteria I think it’s best to focus on are the guidelines are spelled out in the Code of Federal Regulations and used by the EPA and Coast Guard to evaluate oil spills:
(1) Minor discharge means a discharge to the inland waters of less than 1,000 gallons of oil or a discharge to the coastal waters of less than 10,000 gallons of oil.
(2) Medium discharge means a discharge of 1,000 to 10,000 gallons of oil to the inland waters or a discharge of 10,000 to 100,000 gallons of oil to the coastal waters.
(3) Major discharge means a discharge of more than 10,000 gallons of oil to the inland waters or more than 100,000 gallons of oil to the coastal waters.
17,700 barrels of oil corresponds to 743,400 gallons, which is more than sufficient to qualify as a “major discharge” under Federal guidelines. Now, that 743,400 gallons is certainly small potatoes compared to the over 8 million gallons of oil which spilled inland along the Mississippi River and other locations in Louisiana. Still, if it’s over seven times what the EPA considers a “major discharge”, I have to take issue with the MMS’s report characterization of the spill as “minor.” While it appears that no individual leak appears to have been a major discharge, the sum total of oil spilled from oil platforms after Katrina and Rita is more than enough to qualify as one.
Thankfully, the environmental impacts from these spills appear to be minor. But the idea that there were “no significant leaks” from offshore platforms after Katrina and Rita doesn’t appear to be justified by the evidence.
Photo credit: NOAA