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Academics Dig Into Offshore Drilling Debate

Opponents and supporters of the controversial offshore drilling proposal that is shaping up to be one of Legislature’s big fights next session have been talking about the plan at every turn lately – and influential lawmakers have been listening – but Monday the academic community dug into the hot topic in the effort to provide an “honest broker” in the debate.

The Florida State University Institute for Energy Systems, Economics and Sustainability hosted a symposium on offshore energy, focusing on oil and gas. It's expected to be the first part of two such gatherings, with a January meeting scheduled to focus on alternative energy.

Panelists drawn from the oil and gas industry, state and federal regulatory agencies, and from public and private research programs discussed energy resources and development, the economics of the issue, environmental issues, and the technology of oil and gas drilling.

In a sharp contrast from the black and white certitude on both hardening sides of the drilling debate – supporters say drilling will immediately improve gas prices, opponents say it will hardly make a dent – the scholars gathered in Tallahassee sat comfortably in the murky gray area.

“There may be oil and gas, but it may be uneconomical in the present circumstances to produce it,” FSU oceanography professor Ian MacDonald told reporters after speaking on a panel titled “Technical and Environmental Challenges.” “There are always more unknowns than knows.”

But in news likely to be cheered by supporters of the proposal, which emerged late in the 2009 session and appears to be gathering steam in advance of 2010, several of researchers that joined MacDonald on the panel said there are reasons to believe drilling would be fruitful.

“All I know is that off the Panhandle, you have production on shore and you have discoveries seaward of state waters,” oceanographer Kenneth Schaudt told reporters. “I would assume… if you have it shoreward of the state waters and you have discovers seaward of state waters, they might be connected in between. That’s a normal assumption.”

Texas A&M University Ocean Sciences of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group director Norman Guinasso Jr. agreed, saying “you could look at the maps that show the federal lease areas and you could see that all the dots stop at the eastern zone.”

“The eastern zone is what’s offshore of Florida,” Guinasso said. “They all stop at that line and that’s your state line way out there 200 miles offshore. You could think that those little green dots are pretty dense in the central region and there’s no reason for them to stop at that line.”

However, MacDonald warned that production in the rest of the Gulf of Mexico may be an imperfect predictor.

“The discoveries if they do occur in Florida waters will be different from what was found in Louisiana, Texas and Mexico,” he said. “This is a different region, a carbonate platform without the major sedimentation that we see on the central Gulf of Mexico and without the history of wildcat discoveries that categorized…the famous discoveries of Texas.”

The researchers also discussed the safety risk presented by possible oil spills, which have long been raised by environmentalists as reason enough to leave the Florida coastline unexplored for oil.

“The number of accidents (in drilling internationally) has gone down dramatically,” said University of Bergen in Norway geobiology adjunct professor Martin Hovland, who is also a consultant with Norwegian oil company Statoil. “Our last blowout was in 1985. We decided then to do a big study to prevent new accidents from happening and we’ve succeeded. We haven’t had blowouts since then.”

Guinasso agreed, saying “you see a gradual increase in the engineering level that goes into the design of these platforms and pipelines. They’re designed to react well in hurricanes. They’re design to not spill oil.”

But MacDonald added that it would take more than just better technology to ensure that drilling did not cause damage to the environment.

“It’s also enforcement,” he said. “The standards have to be maintained at a high level and they have to be raised.”

However, Schaudt said the unexpected could still happen in a hurricane-prone state like Florida.

“Hurricane Katrina immediately coming after Ivan was inconceivable,” he said. “We measured 70 odd foot tall waves during Camille, and no one in my side of the business, which is predicting the design waves, thought we could have 90 plus foot waves in a hurricane.”

Schaudt quickly added that the drilling industry has historically learned quickly from its mistakes.

“The early platform, people though the waves couldn’t get much over 60 feet at the shelf break,” he said. “That was common practice -- it was state of the art 40 years ago. Conditions evolve, knowledge evolves.”

Other panels at the FSU drilling symposium included “Economic Challenges” and “Law and Policy Changes.” Panelists included Michael Celata, chief of resource studies for the U.S. Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico region, and Mark Kaiser, a Louisiana State University professor and director of the research and development division for the school's Center for Energy Studies.

At the beginning of the symposium, FSU president T.K. Wetherell said the drilling issue was too important for the university to ignore.

“We believe it’s one of the most important issues the state will have to deal with over the next year, not just from an economic standpoint, but simply from a policy standpoint of what the state needs to do,” Wetherell said. “It’s part of our obligation as a flagship graduate public research university to bring these issues to the fore.”

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