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Oil and Gas Development: Mysteries and Misconceptions

Ever wonder why you see oil rigs off in the distance in certain areas but not others?  Those odd platforms sit unassumingly by day and eerily light up the horizon by night, reminding us that energy production never sleeps.  As much as we’d all love to use efficient light bulbs and drive hybrids, it is important to recognize that traditional energy sources, such as oil and gas, are still an integral aspect of our lives.  So, rather than bemoaning and demonizing it, I wanted to learn a little more about the industry in hopes of forming more educated and refined opinions rather than presumptive disdain.  For my efforts, I was rewarded with discovering a reassuring example of scientific data being used to directly inform management and development.

Starting with the basics, it’s important to remember that the new and improved

Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) regulates and manages all aspects of traditional and renewable energy production in the marine environment.  As we know, creating energy from natural resources is no easy feat, giving BOEM enormous responsibility throughout the planning, exploration, development, and production phases.  Main concerns include safety, feasibility (profitability), and environmental stewardship, which are important factors that determine the outcome of where, when, and how energy is developed around the country, starting with the lease sale.

Companies purchase areas of the ocean (seafloor) just as they would purchase the rights to develop on land.  In this case, Shell, for example, buys 5-year rights to sail around in specific areas of the arctic looking for features that might indicate plentiful oil deposits.  Once this scoping is finished, they can choose if and where to develop.  What I found interesting though, was the environmental sensitivity analysis that was conducted to improve stewardship and planning in the 2012-2017 lease sale process.  In this tedious document, they show how each lease sale area was numerically scored for sensitivity (to spills and acoustic or physical disturbance) in three categories: marine habitat, productivity, and marine fauna.

By attaching a number value to the type of seafloor, how much plant life exists, or even how many endangered species live in the area, they managed to systematically group each area according to environmental impacts.  (Interestingly, sensitivity to climate change is only qualitatively assessed).  After reading

the report, I still had questions about how this information is used.  Do areas deemed as being more sensitive cost more to lease?  Do stricter monitoring and research requirements make it less desirable?  While economics and profitability largely motivate this industry, how might the valuation of these areas change if the public was more aware of this scaled sensitivity scoring?

Renewable energy technologies are moving forward, but progress is slow.  In the meantime, one thing to do is acknowledge the wealth of information that these oil companies are required to provide in exchange for their activities. These ships collect data ranging from whale abundance to bathymetric mapping that we would not otherwise have.  As oil and gas activities are ramping up in the face of Deep Water Horizon amnesia and growing temptation in the arctic, it is important that we stay informed to support improvements rather than whining about corrupt offshore drilling.  In truth, media dramatization and public outcry shouldn’t eclipse the fact that these activities are (largely) monitored and regulated with equal attention and precision as any other necessary resource extraction.

This only scratches the surface of this topic – what do you know about oil and gas exploration?



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