What a difference a week makes. On April 19, Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon rig was doing some exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on behalf of BP. After a six-year drought that started in 1994, BP had discovered several major oil deposits throughout the last decade: Marlin, 2000; Horn Mountain, 2002; Na Kika, 2003; Holstein, 2004; Mad Dog, 2005, Atlantis, 2007, and Thunder Horse in 2008. At the end of March, President Obama announced plans to relax some of the rules regarding offshore drilling.
On April 20, an explosion on Deepwater Horizon changed all that. Early reports indicated 115 workers were injured, 11 were missing, and the rig was on fire. By April 22 the rig, which has an estimated replacement cost of $700 million, was sinking. The only sigh of relief in this tragedy came on April 23, when Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry reported that no crude was spilling from the rig.
That statement was premature. A hole in a pipe was leaking a substantial amount of oil, initially estimated at 1,000 barrels (42,000 gallons) per day. At approximately 100 miles by 45 miles, it could turn out to be the biggest oil slick ever. On April 29 the leak estimate was revised to 5,000 barrels per day.
The 126 dead and injured workers have thrown a spotlight onto the industry’s safety record; the slick has caught the attention of environmentalists everywhere; the other big industries in the area, tourism and fishing, are under siege; and it calls into question the practicality of offshore drilling.
All of these matters deserve our attention, but if the government gets into a big hurry to limit pollution with new legislation, it really should take a broader view. Big disasters are just a small part of the problem; big spills like this one result in a loss of approximately 37 million gallons of petroleum annually, which is estimated to be less than 6 percent of the total dumped on land and into the seas. In regular day-to-day drilling operations, small spills and “operational discharges” result in 15 million barrels (less than 3 percent) of petroleum lost in the oceans every year. Routine maintenance, which includes practices such as rinsing ships’ bilges, results in 137 million gallons of oil wasted annually. That’s more than 21 percent of the problem.
The biggest contributor? Used oil that isn’t disposed properly. Regardless of where it is dumped, much of it ends up contaminating fresh water and the oceans.
A simple solution: Require a $5 deposit on every quart of oil purchased. After changing the oil and turning in the used oil at a recycling or reclamation center, the user gets a receipt that proves that the oil was properly disposed and uses that receipt to get his deposit back. If it worked, it would cut the problem in half — HALF! — by preventing 363 million gallons of waste oil from contaminating our soil and our water annually.