Off Our Shores?

By staff March 1, 2006

The day after last Thanksgiving, while half the country flocked to the malls looking for big pre-Christmas sales, Tony Amos went to the beach. He got there around 7 a.m. and stayed more than two hours.

He didn't get a tan. He didn't swim a stroke, either.

For the 3,741st time, Amos drove along the coast of Mustang Island, Texas, taking detailed notes on everything he saw. Amos, a researcher for the University of Texas, has repeatedly surveyed the same seven-and-a-half-mile stretch of coastline near Corpus Christi since 1978. He has documented every squawking shore bird, every tossed-away beer can, every towel-toting tourist-and every empty chemical drum and oil-company hard hat that has washed ashore from rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I've seen and counted more trash than anyone else," says Amos, who has the beard of an Old Testament prophet and the accent of an Oxford don.

His pickup truck creeps along Mustang Island, past signs that say "Keep Your Beaches Clean" and boardwalk stations for washing off tar balls. Every few feet he hits the brakes as he spots something worth noting on his battered old portable computer. Originally his only interest was in tracking the beach's wildlife, but over the years he has catalogued a steady flow of debris onto the beach, much of it from offshore rigs. He has found five-gallon buckets oozing unidentified gray stuff, sheets of plastic twisted in knots and battered 55-gallon drums.

After Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricane Rita roared through the Gulf last year, toppling offshore rigs, ripping out underwater pipelines and causing millions of gallons of oil to spill into the water, Amos says he found two unused escape pods for rig crews to use in emergencies. The hurricanes had blown the empty pods overboard, and they washed up on the beach looking like abandoned spaceships.

Sometimes it's difficult to tell where the Mustang Island debris originated, Amos says. "But when some chemical drums are labeled Halliburton and other big company names involved in drilling out there, you know where it came from."

Over the past 40 years, companies like Halliburton have drilled about 10,000 oil and gas wells across the western and central Gulf. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been willing to overlook the trash and tar that washed ashore in exchange for a rich bounty of cash and jobs.

But Florida's $50 billion tourist industry depends on having clean beaches. The slightest taint in the emerald waters can be enough to send the tourists packing. For instance, when red tide plagued Southwest Florida last year, out-of-state visitors who got one whiff of all the dead fish quickly canceled their reservations. So over the years Florida's business leaders have always worked with environmental activists to keep the eastern Gulf off-limits to offshore drilling.

"Our board passed a resolution that said we are opposed to drilling anywhere around the Florida peninsula," says Marietta Mudgett, executive director of the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. "That was a stand we took several years ago, and we haven't changed our minds about it, because of our concern for our environment and the economy of our state."

In the face of such widespread disapproval of drilling, finding a Florida politician who would side with the oil companies was about as likely as finding one who would shake hands with Fidel Castro. They were almost uniformly opposed to drilling, and their united front seemed as sturdy a brick wall.

Until last fall, when the wall began to crumble.

When Katrina and Rita disrupted gas production, prices at the pump more than doubled, climbing to over $3 a gallon. Experts predict the offshore oil industry won't fully recover from the hurricanes until next summer at the earliest. To some, this showed how vulnerable the industry is to natural disaster. To others, this was a sign that Florida should drop its resistance to drilling in the eastern Gulf for the good of the country.

Senators and congressmen from other states began making noises about huge winter heating bills that would hurt poor senior citizens and ruin small businesses. The solution, they said, was to open up new coasts to drilling, particularly a section of the eastern Gulf known as Area 181, about 100 miles south of Florida's Panhandle.

"We believe 181 has to be done. It is the single most significant act to stabilize or possibly reduce the price of natural gas," Sen. Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in September. (Power companies and the oil industry are, respectively, the second- and third-largest sources of Domenici's campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Members of Domenici's committee urged Interior Secretary Gale Norton to start selling new leases in Area 181. She agreed the region has huge gas reserves-more than 6 trillion cubic feet, which backers said was enough to meet the needs of more than 4 million households for 20 years. But she pointed out that the administration had a deal with Florida to hold off selling any new leases there prior to 2007. Besides, she noted, even if new leases were sold immediately, no rigs could get set up and start producing gas for at least two years-hardly fast enough to bring down heating bills for the 2005 winter.

To address concerns about spills, some senators and congressmen talked of limiting the drilling to natural gas only. But Norton has called that impractical. No oil company would spend the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to drill in the Gulf knowing that if oil turned up instead of gas, the company couldn't pump it out and sell it, she told the Tampa Tribune.

Despite Norton's cautionary words, congressmen in the House were pushing ahead on their plan to open up Area 181. Leading the charge was a California Republican named Richard Pombo, whose biggest campaign contributor in 2004 was the oil and gas industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Pombo, a rancher with a thin mustache who often poses for pictures wearing a cowboy hat, chairs the House Resources Committee. Under his direction the committee has proposed rewriting the Endangered Species Act, selling off land in 15 national parks and easing restrictions on logging in national forests.

Now his committee was proposing to allow oil and gas exploration within 125 miles of the U.S. coast, where it's currently prohibited, including Florida. In fact, the Pombo plan would give state legislatures the power to move the line even closer to their coasts-to within 25 miles for natural-gas drilling and 50 miles for oil. Most of Area 181 would be opened up within 90 days of the bill's passage. And to sweeten the pot, half the royalties the federal government collects from the oil company leaseholders would instead go to the affected states-a strong incentive for letting the oil companies get closer.

Pombo inserted this plan into a budget bill, rather than sponsoring it as a stand-alone measure. He touted it as a way to whittle away at the nation's trillion-dollar debt by raking in millions of dollars from new offshore lease sales.

"Americans want Congress to cut the deficit," Pombo announced. "They also want more domestic energy production to help lower home-heating bills and prices at the pump. This package is going to give them both. In today's global energy market, with skyrocketing prices, it would be irresponsible to continue restricting domestic energy production."

As always, opposition to drilling close to Florida ran the gamut of political persuasions. Take the two candidates for U.S. Senate. Congresswoman Katherine Harris, a Sarasota Republican, proclaimed, "I'm against drilling in the Gulf, and I'm going to stay there."

And the Democratic incumbent Harris hopes to beat, Sen. Bill Nelson, was dead-set against the Pombo plan, too. "Florida's overall economic health is dependent on preserving the coastal areas that draw tourists to our state from all over the globe," Nelson explained. "A single spill would leave blackened beaches and a devastated tourism industry."

But for the first time in memory, Florida's political leadership failed to show a united front.

Several of Florida's Republican congressmen said they supported the Pombo plan. Rising gas prices and the incessant pressure from the pro-drilling forces had persuaded them that this was the only reasonable position, they said. Currently what's protecting Florida from drilling close to shore is a patchwork of presidential executive orders and administrative moratoria on different parts of the eastern Gulf. With the Pombo deal, they said, Florida could ensure lasting legal protection against having oil rigs in sight of the beach.

Those arguments didn't sway the environmental groups. Though out of sight, the rigs would still be a lot closer than ever before.

"The price of gas is no reason to open up the coastline of Florida to such a risky venture," said Glenn Compton of the Sarasota-based group Manasota-88.

Business leaders didn't back down, either. "We're not going to change, not even with gas prices being the way they are," said Mudgett of the Fort Myers chamber.

Yet the pro-Pombo forces had a trump card. On their side was the most influential Florida leader of all: Gov. Jeb Bush. He wasn't a recent convert, either. Bush had spent months negotiating with Pombo to create this particular plan.

Environmental and business groups scratched their heads. What happened to the anti-drilling governor they thought they could count on?

When Bush ran for governor, environmental groups feared he would open the door to offshore drilling around Florida. After all, didn't he come from a family in the oil business? But Bush surprised them. In 1999, shortly after he took office, Bush said he was "resolutely opposed to allowing oil and gas leasing, exploration or development off Florida's coasts."

Then in 2001, after his brother became president, Bush sent a letter to federal officials that again made plain his opposition to drilling in the eastern Gulf: "I am confident the new administration will recognize the need to protect sensitive natural resources located both offshore, and along Florida's coastline, for the benefit of the entire nation."

At the time, Chevron, Conoco and Murphy Exploration and Production were seeking federal permission to drill in an area of the eastern Gulf known as the Destin Dome, a mere 25 miles south of Pensacola Beach. The companies had bought their leases during the Reagan Administration. In 1996 they submitted a plan to sink 21 natural gas wells in these remarkably clean waters, where redfish and Spanish mackerel regularly spawn.

A 1999 public hearing in Pensacola drew more than 500 extremely vocal drilling opponents, ranging from buttoned-down executives and stylish Junior Leaguers to long-haired beach bums and mohawked skateboarders. Only two speakers favored drilling, and one of them was Chevron's New Orleans lawyer. Both were loudly booed.

Florida's staunch opposition stalled the federal government's decision on Destin Dome so long that Chevron officials sued. But then in 2002 Gov. Bush joined forces with President Bush to end the threat from Chevron. The president and governor, in a move that chagrined Democrats and delighted environmental groups, announced a $115 million deal for the government to buy back the offshore leases from the three companies.

Coincidentally, the governor happened to be running for re-election at the time. Asked if the deal to stop Chevron would help his campaign, he said he hoped so. "But more importantly, it is good public policy," he added. "When there is a convergence of good policy and good politics, I don't think we should be ashamed of it."

Yet now, Bush was singing a different tune-though he insisted he was just adapting to the times.

"There's no flip-flopping," Bush told reporters. "There are two approaches. One is to be politically correct, and basically be ineffective, or to have a chance to influence events and to enhance our position." Bush contended that the Pombo proposal was a reasonable compromise. When reporters pointed out that many Floridians favored no compromises on drilling, the governor snapped, "That's great. I'll talk to the fairy godmother about it."

Environmental groups were not mollified by Bush's assurances that the rigs would be invisible from the shore. "Just because they're out of sight doesn't mean they're not polluting," complained Enid Sisskin of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense.

In October, the governor got a letter from someone with more than a little knowledge of Area 181: Dr. Robert Weisberg, an oceanographer from the University of South Florida. Weisberg, a professor with a gentle voice but an intense stare, has spent years studying the Gulf, particularly its currents. In his letter, he warned Bush that drilling in the eastern Gulf "is not environmentally sound for the state of Florida." The reason, he said, was the Loop Current.

The Loop Current circulates warm water from the Caribbean Sea up toward Louisiana, then sweeps it down through the Straits of Florida, around the Keys and up the Atlantic coast to join the Gulf Stream. Its warm waters fueled Katrina and Rita as they rampaged through the offshore oil fields.

By moving the boundary line so close to Florida, Weisberg warned, the governor was putting beaches all over the state at risk-not just the ones along the Gulf, but beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side as well. Pollution from the rigs that settles into the Loop Current would flow southward to coat the Keys, he said, and then be pushed north to wreak further havoc on the state's ecology and the economy.

"It could affect the beaches and reefs all the way up the East Coast," Weisberg said.

Weisberg says the only response to his letter was a reply from one of Bush's aides thanking him for his interest. But other oceanographers say Weisberg is right. "If any messy stuff should be at the surface in the vicinity of the Loop Current, it is going to be carried with it, that's for sure," said Wilton Sturges, a retired Florida State University oceanography professor.

That the rigs would spill "messy stuff" at some point seems a given. When the U.S. Minerals Management Service did a study of drilling near Florida, the agency-hardly a critic of offshore drilling-said that putting rigs anywhere in that vicinity "is expected to result in small pollution events that could temporarily affect the enjoyment or use of some beach segments in Alabama or Florida."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that if there were a spill, "there is as great as a 47-percent chance that the slick would reach Florida's coastal waters before dissipating."

Chevron hired Sturges to do a study on its Destin Dome proposal. He said he found "that under worst-case conditions the spilled stuff could be brought ashore much faster than any response team could get there to clean it up. It is a real crapshoot about when it might happen, of course. Most bad things happen during nasty weather, when the difficulties of cleanups are at their worst."

Consider what happened with Katrina. When the storm ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi, U.S. Coast Guard officials said more than 7 million gallons of petroleum products spilled. By comparison, in 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons.

One of the hardest-hit places was the little town of Meraux, La. A storage tank in the Murphy Oil Corp. refinery nearby floated off its base and broke, spilling 1 million gallons of crude oil that contaminated about 1,700 homes. Officials called it one of the worst residential oil spills in U.S. history. Months later workers in moon suits were still trying to clean up the mess.

But that was minor compared to Ixtoc.

The most monstrous disaster ever to hit Mustang Island was the Ixtoc I spill, the worst peacetime spill in modern history. Tony Amos still has vivid memories of the 1979 disaster.

It started 600 miles away from Mustang Island, in a section of the Gulf called the Bay of Campeche just north of the Mexican coast. A rig blew out, caught fire and collapsed. The fire and scattered debris made capping the well so difficult that it continued spewing for nearly a year, dumping more than 3 billion barrels of oil-yes, billion.

Two months after the initial blowout, the first tar balls began washing ashore in Texas. Soon the state's entire coastline was coated. A thousand birds needed cleaning or they would die. Tourism dropped by 60 percent. Hotels and other tourist-dependent businesses lost millions of dollars.

State officials attempted a cleanup, but then a storm came along and pushed a lot of the oil offshore again. The crisis seemed to be over. However, Amos said, the beach cleanup ended too soon. The residue formed "tar reefs" just off Mustang Island. For about eight years, every time a storm hit, pieces of the tar reefs would break off and coat the beach with goo, he said. Studies of smaller oil spills in Panama and Tampa Bay uncovered a similar phenomenon: oil that defied cleanup because it settled into sediments offshore, said Ted Van Vleet, a USF oceanographer who has studied both Ixtoc and the 1993 tanker collision that spilled oil in Tampa Bay.

"After three or four years you could go back out there and find oil that had been there since day one, and it still had the same toxic components," Van Vleet said.

Oil industry officials contend that any spills are more than offset by the millions of dollars in royalties the companies pay for leasing public property. David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council pointed out that the royalties go into a fund for buying environmentally sensitive land in places like the Everglades. "That's the trade-off," he said.

Besides, Mica says, "Our industry's record regarding those kinds of discharges and pollution is pretty darn good."

Big spills like Ixtoc are rare. Smaller spills are not. The Coast Guard has documented more than 239,000 oil spills between 1973 and 2001. In one recent environmental-impact study of drilling in the eastern Gulf, the Minerals Management Service estimated that over the next 40 years there could be up to 870 spills of 2,000 gallons or less there.

Some environmental advocates say their biggest concern is not a major Ixtoc-type spill but chemical pollution generated by the rigs' routine operation. The EPA, in a report on Chevron's drilling plan for the eastern Gulf, found that routine chemical discharges of such pollutants as barium, chromium and arsenic would "introduce significant quantities of contaminants to these relatively pristine waters."

And the MMS predicted that just those few rigs in Destin Dome, whether drilling for oil or gas, "would contribute about 1.65 billion pounds per year of contaminants," which could lead to "the long-term, regional degradation of offshore water quality."

When the rigs first drill into the ocean floor, the crews use fluids called "drilling muds" to remove rock cuttings, lubricate and cool the drill bit, control pressure and seal the well. Because drilling muds often include toxic metals such as barium, chromium and arsenic, they are "the greatest potential source of contamination from drilling operations," according to the MMS.

The rigs can discharge thousands of barrels of drilling mud overboard every day. Once or twice during drilling, a well might dump out 500 to 1,500 barrels of mud an hour for up to three hours. Once discharged into the water, the drilling muds do not disappear. When scientists checked the sea bottom around some exploratory wells that Chevron had drilled three years before, they reported that "the layer of cuttings at both sites was still quite thick ... and drill mud (barium and barite) was present in substantial quantities." Studies have documented that drilling muds have inhibited the growth of seagrasses and corals and have killed off the tiny creatures on the sea bottom that form the base of the ocean's food chain.

Once the well is drilled and begins pumping, it also discharges a new pollutant known as "produced water." Produced water consists of the brine and chemicals produced during the extraction process and can be high in dissolved solids and metals, such as vanadium, copper and arsenic.

Produced water "constitutes the largest single source of material discharged into the Gulf during normal oil and gas operations," the MMS noted in its study. MMS officials estimated that offshore operations in the Gulf could discharge up to 547 million barrels of produced water overboard during the next 40 years.

Studies have found that the produced water discharges traveled downcurrent for some distance and ended up contaminating sediments, especially when the discharge had continued for 10 years or more. However, the MMS predicted the ultimate impact would be "very small" because the pollution is diluted by the Gulf.

The EPA requires those discharges to be treated to eliminate some toxicity before they are dumped in the water. Then the sheer size of the Gulf is expected to dissipate their effects. Yet Enid Sisskin wonders about the cumulative impact of so much pollution pouring into the Gulf day after day from so many rigs. At some point, dilution is not the solution anymore.

"How much can you put in before it can't clean itself anymore?" she asks.

Federal officials acknowledge they don't know exactly how much pollution the Gulf can absorb. When in 2001 Sisskin complained to the MMS that discharges from the rigs are turning the Gulf into "a toxic soup," the agency replied that each rig attracts 10,000 to 30,000 fish. If the water were poisoned, agency officials said, surely all those fish would stay away.

But a year later an Alabama newspaper, the Mobile Press-Register, tested grouper, amberjack, cobia, redfish and king mackerel that had been caught near the rigs. Almost all of the fish tested were found to contain so much mercury that they would not be acceptable for sale to the public under guidelines developed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Mobile newspaper uncovered MMS-funded studies showing that mercury concentrations in the sea-bottom sand around some rigs were as high as levels found at some federal "Superfund" sites. The source: the drilling muds.

Researchers found that the mercury contamination was most intense within a 650-foot-wide circle around each rig and that mercury levels remained dangerously high 12 years after drilling ceased, the newspaper reported.

Yet in last fall's debate over opening Area 181, no one in Congress was talking about mercury-tainted fish or drilling muds. In fact, some were contending there would be no pollution whatsoever.

Congressman John Peterson, Republican of Pennsylvania, contended that if the oil companies were limited to drilling only for natural gas instead of oil and gas, that would lower winter heating bills for his constituents "without having any adverse impact on the environment-none."

In December, Florida's biggest business lobby, Associated Industries, announced that it now favors some compromise on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf so long as no rigs are visible from the beaches, even with binoculars.

In October, Pombo's plan for opening Area 181 fell apart-due not to environmental considerations but political ones. In the same budget bill calling for drilling off Florida, he had also included several other controversial provisions, such as opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and cutting funding for school loans and food-stamp programs. It proved to be too much stuffing for one turkey.

Democrats were united against the bill, which meant Pombo could afford few defections from the GOP ranks. But about half of Florida's Republicans opposed the offshore drilling plan. Those Florida Republicans who supported it said they would vote against it if Pombo took out the Alaska provision but left in the offshore section. Moderate GOP members from the Northeast wanted the Alaska drilling taken out of the bill. But Western Republicans threatened to vote it down if either oil industry-backed provision were taken out. There were too many fractures, and Pombo had to strip out all of the controversial elements just to get the budget bill through.

It didn't help that the vote on Pombo's bill came right after a congressional hearing in which the heads of the five major oil companies tried to explain away their record $25 billion profits in the July-to-September quarter of 2005-the same time gas prices were shooting to record levels after the hurricanes. Even Sen. Domenici began grumbling that there was a "growing suspicion that oil companies are taking unfair advantage."

Environmental groups crowed that the failure of Pombo's bill showed the governor was wrong to try to cut a deal with the oil industry. Taking a stand against drilling worked, they boasted.

"What this proves is that losing isn't inevitable," said Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "We actually can win these fights."

Just a month later, though, Pennsylvania's Rep. Peterson was pushing another bill calling for natural gas drilling in previously protected areas off Florida and other states-this time within 20 miles of the coast. He was hoping to get it to the House floor for a vote by spring.

Meanwhile, back in Texas, Tony Amos cranked up his truck. It was time to check his beach for trash from the offshore rigs. The stuff just kept on coming, wave after wave after wave.

Craig Pittman covers environmental issues for the St. Petersburg Times and recently won a Florida Magazine Association award for his story "The Case of the Purloined Orchid," which ran in our March 2005 issue. He lives in St. Petersburg.

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