SACE | Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

The Impacts of Offshore Drilling


With unstable fuel prices and concerns about national security, our nation is justifiably looking for new energy resources. But many want us to use limited time and resources to pursue a false solution—offshore drilling. With less than three percent of global oil reserves, we cannot expect to drill our way to lower gas prices. Even if we wanted to, it would take nearly a decade to see oil from new wells. boat_in_oil.jpgIn the Southeast, our beaches and coastal heritage are important tourist destinations and economic engines. Why risk polluting our beaches for more oil? It costs too much, takes too long and won’t lower prices at all.

There are several reasons why we should look for actual solutions to our oil addiction instead of prolonging our dependence on oil, but the most important reason is that more drilling will not lower prices or help us achieve energy independence. We have been trying to drill our way to low prices and energy independence for several years. Although we drill more and more, prices continue to become less stable.

Between 1999-2007, drilling permits increased by more than 350 percent, but more drilling has not lead to lower prices. In fact, during that period of time the price of gas nearly doubled. Prices for oil are set on the global market, and the United States has less than three percent of world oil reserves. With substantially less oil than other regions, the United States cannot expect to use its comparatively modest resources to drive prices down. The offshore drilling sites currently unavailable to oil companies contain roughly 18 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Drilling in this area would not even reduce our country’s oil imports by 5 percent by 2030. Instead of risking treasured places along our coasts and jeopardizing tremendous economic opportunities like tourism, we can achieve energy independence by putting more efficient vehicles on the road, providing more transportation alternatives and producing clean fuels from sustainable and renewable resources like switchgrass.


Offshore drilling, whether for oil or natural gas, comes with a variety of risks to the ocean environment and the tourism-based economies that depend on them. Drilling offshore creates unhealthy air pollution, leaks or spills toxic materials into the ocean and disturbs local wildlife habitats.

Dirty Air

Offshore drilling creates unhealthy pollution that affects outdoor recreational opportunities in coastal communities. While there are several sources of air pollution, offshore drilling, where it exists, is typically one of the primary sources. For example, a 2004 survey of air pollution in the Gulf of Mexico found that offshore oil and gas operations were responsible for between 70-90% of soot- and smog-forming pollution.

Additional Infrastructure

More oil drilling obviously requires the construction of new offshore drilling infrastructure. But many drilling proponents forget about the additional on-shore refineries, pipelines and storage tanks that are needed to support new drilling operations. Even if the drilling platforms are far enough offshore that they can’t be seen, the on-shore equipment and facilities will affect coastal communities’ air quality, water quality and public health.

tarballs.jpgPolluted Beaches

In addition to spewing dirty pollution into the air, offshore drilling operations also leave behind toxic water pollution.

Oil and gas drilling activities in the United States spill an average of 880,000 gallons every year. The Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service expects every offshore oil field to have at least one spill of more than 1,000 gallons every year, even with safety precautions in place.

Even the tightest safety measures cannot prevent spills from strong weather events like hurricanes or tropical storms. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 113 drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, damaged more than 450 pipelines and spilled nearly 750,000 gallons of petroleum products.

Since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion in April 2010, scientists estimate that between 1.9 million to 3.5 million barrels(or about 80-150 million gallons) have gushed from the seabed, spreading along the Gulf Coast from the Louisiana coastline all the way to the Florida panhandle.

The oil and other toxic materials that leak or are dumped into the ocean as a result of drilling threaten water quality, harm aquatic wildlife and put coastal communities’ economic opportunity at risk. More drilling would mean more oil spills, and the new leases would be near shores that are critical to the livelihoods of millions in the tourism industry.

Climate Change

We can’t drill our way to lower prices or energy independence, but we can drill our way to a climate disaster. In fact, drilling and using the rest of the available offshore oil would generate more than 340 million tons of additional carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollution. As we look for ways to address climate change, increasing our addiction to fossil fuels with more offshore drilling will only add to the problem.

Clean energy and alternative transportation options can help us save money on gas, reduce our dependence on oil and protect our natural heritage.