Big Oil Gulps More Gulf



On Aug. 19, after the Observer went to press, representatives from some of the world’s biggest oil companies were set to gather in New Orleans to bid on oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration is auctioning 18 million acres of oil and gas tracts, some just nine miles from the Texas shore.

If all the leases were snatched up, some 3,400 new oil wells could be added to the 3,800 wells already active in the Gulf. That won’t happen; industry analysts say only the most potentially productive leases will be bid on. “With the economy and prices on oil being down, we will probably see less money and less bids,” says Andy Radford, a senior policy analyst with the American Petroleum Institute.

Even so, with environmentalists viewing the Gulf as already under siege, the auction is unwelcome to many. Expanded drilling will hasten climate change and further pollute the Gulf, says Jackie Savitz of the nonprofit environmental group Oceana. She cites studies showing that drilling for natural gas and oil dumps massive amounts of untreated mud into ocean water, and that oil spills kill marine mammals and fish. She cites a spill off the Louisiana coast in late July, when more than 58,000 gallons of oil oozed into the Gulf from an underwater pipeline owned by Royal Dutch Shell plc.

So far, oil companies are winning the debate over drilling in the Gulf. Rather than organize against more offshore platforms in platform-rich Texas, some environmental groups are turning to other fights—like  opposing drilling near the coasts of Florida and Alaska, which compared with Texas have been left largely untouched.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that successfully sued the Bush administration to stop expansion of offshore drilling, says it’s concerned about the Gulf’s health, but is focused on saving Alaska. “Decisions were already made decades ago about the Gulf, and it already has significant gas and oil infrastructure,” says Bill Snape, senior counsel with the center. He says his group and others are “drawing a line in the snow on Alaska when it comes to climate change.” Others are focused on environmentally fragile areas off the coast of Florida that would see more drilling under an energy bill now in the Senate.

“Big Oil is never satisfied,” Savitz says. “They keep asking for more of the Gulf to drill, and now they are back for another bite of the apple.”