Faulty promises in bid to drill off Florida?
By Jeremy Wallace
November 29, 2009
The oil industry makes its case for drilling within a few miles of Florida’s coast by trumpeting a new kind of drilling that is “virtually invisible” on the coast.
The promise of subsea systems swayed some legislators to support opening Florida’s waters to drilling.
But a Herald-Tribune examination found that the promises made by drilling proponents are largely empty:
• One of the subsea systems being touted is almost exclusively used in water that is thousands of feet deeper than Florida’s coastal waters.
• Even the American Petroleum Institute concedes that subsea systems are intended for water more than 5,000 feet deep. Florida’s coastline, within the 10 miles the state controls, runs no deeper than 100 feet.
• Another system being promoted, a floating drilling system that uses large vessels tied to subsea drilling wells instead of fixed drilling platforms, has never been used anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
• The only way subsea systems would be viable off Florida’s coast is if large traditional drilling platforms were built nearby or the state allowed refineries and miles of pipelines to shore. History shows that is not likely to happen. A new oil refinery has not been built in the United States since the 1970s.
Absent such changes, drilling off Florida’s coast would likely be done with traditional fixed drilling platforms rising hundreds of feet above the water. These platforms, which dot the Louisiana and Texas coastlines, have for years symbolized Florida’s opposition to drilling.
Yet pro-drilling groups tell legislators that drilling off Florida’s coast would be different than elsewhere in the Gulf and that subsea systems would be used if the state rescinded its drilling ban.
“That’s all we heard about,” said State Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who voted for a bill in May that would have allowed the governor and cabinet to permit drilling from 3 to 10 miles from shore. “If they can’t be used, then what are we talking about?”
Even oil industry officials scoff at the notion of a virtually invisible rig. Denise McCourt, industry relations director for the American Petroleum Institute, said recovering oil from the ocean requires traditional fixed platforms or a pipeline infrastructure like the one around Louisiana and Texas, where drilling has been going on since the 1940s.
“There’s no such thing as an invisible rig,” McCourt said.
Like the moon race?
When pressed, pro-drilling groups acknowledge that most of the subsea systems they promote are not viable in Florida’s coastal waters. But they insist that could change with time.
Ryan Banfill, a public relations pro with Florida Energy Associates in Tallahassee, which is lobbying for drilling, said technology is always changing. In the future, he said, the systems being promoted could be used off Florida. He rebutted the notion that subsea technology is being oversold.
“Just like President Kennedy oversold the technology that could take us to the moon, right,” Banfill said.
David Rancourt, a lobbyist for Florida Energy Associates, said that although subsea systems aren’t economically viable now, if the state demands them to protect ocean views, the industry will have to find a way to make them work in shallow waters even though they are far more expensive than traditional platforms.
Rancourt said one way subsea wells could work within 5 miles of shore, absent pipelines, is if they are tied back to full drilling platforms starting 6 miles out.
The out-of-view technology has been a critical piece of the debate to quell opposition. Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who has led the push for drilling in Florida, stressed the out-of-sight rigs in a column for the Herald-Tribune this summer.
“Today, temporary ship-based rigs can drill wells far out of sight from shore, using directional drilling and subsea equipment to avoid surface visibility and to protect coastal vistas,” Cannon wrote.
On its Web site and in documents given to legislators, Florida Energy Associates focuses on subsea technologies as a key selling point.
“Subsea technologies allow for safe underwater energy exploration without creating a visual blight,” the group’s Web site states.
Subsea costs 10 times more
The systems promoted in glossy handouts to legislators have been common off the coasts of Brazil and West Africa, said Gary Flaharty, an analyst with Baker Hughes, a global oil and natural gas drilling consulting firm.
Flaharty said in those areas there is a rush to tap large, recently discovered crude oil deposits. So much crude oil is being discovered in those places, it makes it economically viable to use the subsea wells.
But subsea rigs are cost-prohibitive in shallower water because the systems cost 10 times more than traditional platforms. One subsea well can cost between $50 million and $70 million, not counting pipelines that cost $1 million a mile to build.
Of the 4,000 drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, there are a few hundred subsea wells, said Mark Kaiser, a professor with Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies. Some of these are close to shore, he said, but only because they are connected to extensive underwater pipelines and onshore oil refineries.
Slowing the debate
Holder and other state senators say they want to punt the oil drilling discussion for at least a year to gather more information.
Instead of blindly trusting the information from both sides of the drilling debate, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he wants the issue kicked to a non-governmental group to review the science.
“I don’t think we know enough,” said Bennett, who opposes drilling off the coast but said the promise of new technology has made him more willing to listen to pro-drilling groups.
Bennett has pushed to get the issue heard by the Century Commission, a non-government group that is expected to hold a statewide forum on oil drilling early in 2010.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach County, told a Sarasota group earlier this month that the Senate would not act without studying the science and the facts.
With all the questions about the technology, State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said it is probably best that Florida slow down the debate and get more into understanding how the technology works.
“I don’t think the Florida Senate will pick this up this year,” Detert said.
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