Shrill Baby Shrill: Maddow Still Spewing Nonsense About Oil Industry

After falsely claiming that oil companies pay no federal royalties for offshore drilling, an assertion later undermined by one of her own guests, Rachel Maddow rewrites the history of the oil industry's last 40 years.  

"We've had a lot of response to the NBC News archival footage that we played this week showing just how much hasn't changed in the past 30 years of oil drilling disasters," told her MSNBC viewers May 28. "You may recall that we played news coverage this week of the 1979 Ixtoc oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. And that footage made clear that from failed blowout preventers, to junk shots, to top kills, to booms, to dispersants, to undersea plumes of oil, oil disasters and oil disaster response looks the same now as it did 30 years ago."

"The only real technological progress the oil industry has made in the past 30 years is figuring out how to drill in ever deeper water," Maddow claimed. "It was unsafe in 200 feet of water 30 years ago. Now the progress is that today it's unsafe in 5,000 feet of water. ... No one in the oil industry wants to say it and no one in America wants to believe that it is true and I include myself in this. But honestly, we have no idea how to drill safely offshore. We know how to drill offshore, but we do not know how to drill safely offshore. Because the oil companies have never been made to care too much about that before."

Not only that, I would hasten to add, we have "no idea" how to send human beings safely into space. Even after losing three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire of January 1967, seven more perished nearly 20 years later on the shuttle Challenger, followed by another seven fatalities on the Columbia in 2003.

If only we'd learned our lesson after Apollo 1 and scrapped manned space flight altogether, relying instead on monkeys and dogs. True, we'd never have sent astronauts to the moon, arguably the singular American achievement of the last century. But we'd all be secure in the knowledge that space travel had become infinitely safer by human beings never engaging in it.

A glaring problem with Maddow's condemnation -- if the oil industry has made no "real technological progress" over the last three decades in preventing major spills, why is it an oil rig disaster in US waters as catastrophic as the Deepwater Horizon blowout has not occurred in 40 years, since the Santa Barbara spill in 1969?

Oil companies, never recipients of fan mail from liberals, are easy targets after a major spill. And count me among those who want BP to pay dearly for the damages caused by this disaster, if BP is found liable. 

But in their criticism, left-wingers like Maddow leave unanswered an obvious question -- what exactly constitutes "safe" extraction of oil and natural gas, an inherently dangerous line of work?

"The record will show from 1947 to 2009, 175,813 barrels have been spilled out of 16.5 billion produced" in the Gulf of Mexico, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, testified at two Senate hearings on May 11. "That is one one-thousandth percent of the total production. I think it is important to keep that in perspective."

This helps explain why Maddow cited the Ixtoc spill as a precedent for the BP disaster -- since the Ixtoc blowout occurred in Mexican waters (which Maddow neglected to tell her viewers) and on a rig run by Pemex, Mexico's state-owned oil company (ditto). 

"Still, you'd think environmentalists and regulators would try to take more credit for their fantastic transformation of oil exploration into one of the most environmentally sensitive endeavors in all of heavy industry," wrote Jonah Goldberg in National Review last July.

"The 'footprint' of oil rigs, on land and at sea, has been shrinking steadily over the last 40 years, thanks largely to directional drilling," Goldberg wrote. "Instead of sinking one pipe straight down, drills can now go in all directions, like robotic octopus tentacles. In 1970, a 20-acre offshore oil rig could drill a mere 0.8 square miles at 10,000 feet. Today, an oil rig of just two acres can drill over 80 square miles -- again, while spilling almost none of it."

That Maddow's premise rings false is perhaps best illustrated by support for ongoing offshore drilling by a specific group of people in a specific place -- environmentalists in ... wait for it ... Santa Barbara, birthplace of the environmental movement.

After the spill in 1969, "Santa Barbara residents formed an environmental group called GOO! (Get Oil Out!), one of the first community groups to oppose offshore drilling," wrote New Hampshire Union Leader editorial page editor Andrew Cline in a July 12-13, 2008 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled "Environmentalists Say Yes to Offshore Drilling." (link here to first paragraph of op-ed; subscription needed for full access).

"Thirty-nine years later, GOO! is still around," Cline wrote. "But this April the group did something astonishing. It publicly supported an oil company's proposal to drill off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Cline elaborated --

Houston-based Plains Exploration and Production Company proposed drilling 22 wells from a platform 4.7 miles from land. It made numerous concessions to the local environmental groups that would curtail drilling in about a decade -- and in the end even the adamantly 'no-drilling' crowd agreed that the deal was beneficial for everyone. The Environmental Defense Center, a nonprofit environmental law firm, endorsed the plan. Abe Powell, president of GOO!, told the Los Angeles Times it was 'good for the community.' Terry Leftgoof, a former GOO! executive director, wrote in the Santa Barbara Independent the deal was 'a brilliant proposal that finally gives the public something back: the certain removal of four offshore oil platforms, the decommissioning of a notorious industrial plant, and the reversion of rural land subjugated into oil development back into the public trust as parkland.

When an environmental group formed for the sole purpose of opposing offshore oil drilling warmly embraces a plan to drill off its own coast, you know something important has changed in our culture: Americans have recognized that offshore oil drilling is largely safe.

Even recent revisions to the plan call for offshore drilling to continue off Santa Barbara -- for the next 14 years.

Just as you are unlikely to have heard of this from the media, something else you probably aren't hearing in coverage of the BP disaster -- a natural phenomenon known as natural oil seepage.

This was described in illuminating detail in a Heritage Foundation article by Bruce Allen published last November, "How Offshore Oil and Gas Production Benefits the Economy and the Environment" --

Drilling restrictions in general are imposed due to environmental concerns, despite the fact that offshore environmental damage has been greatly reduced by technologies that minimize the risk of oil spills and other hazards to the environment. In fact, offshore oil production has lowered the amount of oil released into the ocean by reducing natural seepage of oil, especially in areas with active offshore oil seeps, such as California's Santa Barbara coast. ...

... According to the National Academy of Sciences, 63 percent of hydrocarbon pollution in U.S. waters stems from natural seeps, while only 1 percent is due to offshore drilling and extraction. ...

... The Gulf of Mexico, for instance, is a major U.S. offshore oil and gas producing region where the environmental impact of natural hydrocarbon seepage appears to far exceed the environmental impact of accidental oil releases due to commercial extraction and transportation. ...

... One of the most studied offshore oil and gas seep regions over the last 40 years is the Santa Barbara coast of California, which has the world's second most prolific oil seepage areas, extending for 80 miles along the coastline. ...

... Every four years, the amount of offshore Santa Barbara oil seepage exceeds the 240,000 barrels that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. By comparison, according to the U.S. Minerals and Management Service (sic), the total amount of oil spilled in California coastal waters due to offshore oil production since 1970 has been less than 870 barrels. ...

... Gas emissions from hydrocarbon seeps are estimated to be one of the largest sources of methane released annually into the earth's atmosphere, and studies indicate that existing oil and gas production may be causing ongoing reductions in methane emissions worldwide.

Finally, Maddow's claim that oil companies "have never been made to care too much" about drilling safely is undercut by a dynamic she can scarcely bear to acknowledge -- the workings of the marketplace. Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, BP's stock value has plunged by a third. Under the Clean Water Act, BP faces potential federal fines in the billions of dollars, along with innumerable civil claims and a Justice Department criminal probe.

As pointed out by the Cato Institute's Peter Van Doren and Jerry Taylor, "Oil companies do themselves no economic favors by underinvesting in safety."

Jack Coleman
Jack Coleman
Ex-liberal from People's Republic of Massachusetts