Hurricanes and Offshore Drilling

Chris Carnevale | June 5, 2012 | Climate Change, Energy Policy, Extreme Weather, Offshore Drilling

This blog is the third of a four-part series by Simon Mahan, Chris Carnevale and Jennifer Rennicks on hurricanes and energy. Previous blogs have focused on Hurricanes and Climate Change, and Hurricanes and Wind Farms.  Tomorrow’s blog will focus on Hurricanes and Coastal Adaptation.

Being the first week of hurricane season 2012, and given recent moves by the federal government to open vast swaths of the Atlantic Ocean to offshore oil and gas drilling, it is a proper time to reflect on how these two elements intersect.

The interplay of hurricanes and offshore drilling is one of complexity as we look toward a clean energy future.  On one hand, the historical record tells us that hurricanes and offshore drilling don’t play well together.  Hurricanes have caused major damage to offshore platforms and drilling-related infrastructure and have caused large oil spills.  Yet on the other hand, as the only major offshore energy industry in the country, it is in a unique position to inform the conversation on offshore renewable energy.  Coming from the perspective of a clean energy advocate, the important lessons to take away from examining the relationship between offshore drilling and hurricanes are that while offshore drilling’s risk is unacceptably high and poses a large economic and environmental threat, we can leverage the industry’s technological progress and apply it to a cleaner and safer alternative with offshore wind.

Hurricane Season 2005 As Precedent

Katrina-Rita Oil Spills
This graph shows the breakdown of where the 11 million gallons of spilled oil from 2005 hurricanes came from. Courtesy The Times-Picayune

Like oil and water, drilling rigs and hurricanes don’t mix.  Perhaps the most illuminating example was the 2005 hurricane season when back-to-back hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed the Gulf coast.  They destroyed 109 oil platforms, damaged another 52, sent others missing or adrift, and endangered thousands more, triggering the evacuation of approximately 25,000 well workers.  The result was billions of dollars of direct damage and a temporary freeze of 100 percent of offshore oil and 94 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf.

To make matters worse, a full quarter of Gulf refineries were shut down, representing approximately one-eighth of entire U.S. refining capacity.  While the economic impacts were felt across the country as gasoline prices and natural gas prices jumped, nowhere were the economic impacts of the oil and gas industry felt more strongly than right in the Gulf, which sustained billions of dollars of direct damages and an estimated $4.85 – $8.28 billion in lost productivity in one year following the storms.

Chalmette Oil Spill Katrina
Spilled oil covers the streets of Chalmette, LA in Katrina's wake. Courtesy EPA.

Yet the tragedy wasn’t only economic, but also environmental.  More than 540 oil spills from offshore platforms, pipelines, and refineries resulted in an approximated 11 million gallons of oil spilled in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, making it the then largest oil spill in American history (before the BP 2010 oil blowout).  This volume of oil rivaled and even surpassed the amount released by Exxon Valdez in 1989.  Slicks covered more than 700 square miles of ocean, and covered near entire neighborhoods.  In the words of one resident near Murphy Oil’s Chalmette, Louisiana refinery which spilled approximately one million gallons of oil over 1,700 homes.


The oil penetrated everything.” –Walter Estrade, resident of Chalmette, Louisiana and neighbor to the Murphy Oil refinery that spilled one million gallons of oil into the nearby neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina’s strike.  The oil even absorbed into Mr. Estrade’s wife’s ceramic pots.

Hurricane Season 2005 Was Not An Island

While Katrina and Rita provide the most poignant example of what goes wrong with  offshore drilling in the face of a hurricane, they are certainly not isolated incidents.  Just in the past decade, 2002’s Isidore and Lili shut down almost all of Gulf oil and gas production and damaged over 100 oil and gas pipelines; 2004’s Hurricane Ivan destroyed seven platforms, caused major damage to over 100 oil and gas pipelines, and shut down almost all Gulf oil and gas production; 2008’s double-whammy of Gustav and Ike destroyed 60 platforms and caused moderate to extensive damage on an additional 124, and again shut down nearly all of the Gulf’s oil and gas production.

Ushering in a New Era of Offshore Energy

Katrina-Rita Paths and Platforms
Katrina's (red) and Rita's (yellow) paths. Each red dot represents one offshore platform. 3,000 of the Gulf's 4,000 platforms were in these storms' paths. Courtesy Jiyoung Park and Harry W. Richardson.

While I’ve pointed out that offshore drilling is quite a risky business, I also want to point out that it is a resilient business.  In spite of the losses and damages to the hundreds of offshore platforms mentioned above, it should be noted that for quite a few of these storms, thousands of platforms were at risk and did not sustain huge damage.  While this is partly due to how the storm proceeded down its path, it is also partly due to the fact that offshore oil and gas workers have had half a century to refine technologies and techniques.  As a result, they have developed quite a toolbox of valuable trade best practices.  This expertise and work force has great value to our country as we look toward a clean energy future.  Many of the lessons learned in the offshore oil and gas industry can be tweaked to be put to work for the emerging offshore wind industry.

As we look to the future, we need to make sure we provide the cleanest, most reliable, and safest energy possible.  Particularly as we’ve learned lessons from the 2010 BP oil disaster about the grave health effects of oil exposure to humans and wildlife and the severe economic impacts of offshore drilling gone wrong, it is becoming increasingly clear that intrinsically risky offshore drilling doesn’t deserve much of a place in our energy future when clean, safe alternatives are so abundant.

If you would like to learn how to help prevent new Atlantic oil and gas drilling, please click here.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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