The effects of oil drilling towards the environment or any drilling of similar nature such as drilling of natural gas has been extensively discussed. Major stakeholders such as the government, the private sector and common people that are directly influenced by these drilling activities have different views towards this topic, which makes it more controversial. Some idealist stakeholders, for example, believe that oil drilling poses serious environmental threats. For the same reason, they believe that the risk outweighs the advantages and so these drilling activities must be stopped at once. On the other hand, those stakeholders that is benefiting or has economic interests in these drilling activities believe that although drilling activities pose environmental risks, these risks are manageable and that advancement in drilling technology effectively eliminates any reason to be alarmed. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate how potent oil drilling is as an environmental threat. In order to conduct this evaluation, the environmental risks associated with oil and natural gas drilling will be identified. Furthermore, the paper would analyze if the environmental risks that has been identified indeed outweighs the economic benefits of oil and natural gas production in order to merit a total ban on drilling operations.
Oil and Natural gas is an important source of fuel that powers more or less 85% of the world’s energy needs. In the U.S., attempts to curve dependence on fossil fuels have been among the nation’s policy but still, statistical figures provide a contradicting scenario. 25% of the world’s fossil fuel is consumed by the United States; making the nation the largest consumer fossil fuel in the world. Of its total energy consumption, only 8% is powered by renewable sources. On the other hand, 37% of the country’s energy needs are powered by oil while 25% comes from natural gas. Since the first oil discoveries were made by Colonel Edwin L. Drake in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1850’s, America has been increasingly dependent on oil for its energy source. For obvious reasons, the discovery of oil was followed by a flurry of technological innovations that rely mostly on oil as its energy source. In fact the industrial revolution used oil as its main source of energy and all inventions are centered on it. Fortunately or not, North America, specifically the United States, is one of the most abundant regions in the world for oil and natural gas. However, oil and natural gas could not be easily tapped as it is buried deep within the earth’s layers. In fact, Drake, in his first oil exploration, struck oil at 21 meters below the ground. Due to its pressing demand, oil and natural gas exploration and extraction have been extensive. Currently, new drilling technologies enable oil companies to tap reserves that have not been tapped before. Furthermore, hydraulic fracturing or commonly called as ‘fracking’, is the latest in drilling technology that uses unconventional drilling methods criticized by many as extremely harmful to the environment. With concerns about energy demand as well as environmental protection, stakeholders are faced with a dilemma on what to prioritize. Would it be the environment or would it be the economic gains.
Drilling has always been identified as an environmental hazard even before oil and natural gas have been discovered. Apparently, it is the contamination of underground water that makes drilling an obvious environmental issue. In New York, for example, the difficulty of obtaining a safe drinking water has been a primary concern as early as the 1700’s. According to historians, during the 1700’s residents of Manhattan get their water by digging shallow wells for domestic use. But as the city’s residents increase in numbers, private wells became inadequate to support demand. Residential, commercial as well as industrial establishments began to drill indiscriminately for deep wells. For a period, New York City got its water from underground reserves that eventually got contaminated as the city’s population grew. The danger of using New York’s ground water for domestic use became apparent when the city was struck with a yellow fever epidemic in 1795. Based on this historical experience, it is evident that indiscriminate drilling could indeed contaminate underground water resources notwithstanding the purpose of the drilling activity. The contamination of New York’s underground water was an irreversible process. As a result, the State was forced to look for other water sources. This led to the development of New York’s watershed by impounding portions of its rivers and making them pass through aqueducts in order to deliver clean water to its residents. The New York experience is not an isolated scenario. In fact, among the first State in the U.S. to experience water contamination issues due to industrial extraction of elements was California. During the 1800’s, the gold rush in California brought thousands of immigrants that eventually settled in this region. Just like in New York, the residents of California eventually contaminated their ground water resources due to indiscriminate drilling of water wells for their commercial, industrial and agricultural needs. As demand for water increased, competing consumers dig deeper wells to increase their water output and eventually, the race to the bottom was on. What is significant about California though is the common practice of its miners who utilize the pressure of water from head water streams and direct them towards mountainsides to wash away rocks and expose the elements that are being mined. Because of the use of water pressure to mine minerals, these miners are referred to as hydraulic miners . After some time, the pollution brought by hydraulic mining became apparent as persistent flooding brought mining sludge and other pollutants on plains and low elevated areas. Similarly, the pollution of California’s water resources led the state to engage in a statewide water project that cost the state and the federal government billions of dollars notwithstanding the lives that were lost due to the contaminated water.
Oil and Natural Gas Drilling Technologies
So far, it has been established that drilling, for whatever reason or purpose, do pose enormous risk in the contamination of ground water. However, oil and natural gas companies argue that environmental concerns in their drilling operations are grossly exaggerated. Given the benefit of the doubt, drilling operations in the exploration and extraction of oil and natural gas can be placed under scrutiny. It is quite easy to imagine oil and natural gas deposits as similar to honey inside a honey comb. Although in the case of oil and natural gas, the honey comb is the impermeable stone formation commonly called as the shale formation that traps the oil and natural gas. In order for the oil and natural gas to be extracted, this shale formation would have to be drilled and the precious liquid or gas is pumped out after it has accumulated at the bottom of the well bore. There are two ways on how this shale formation is being drilled. One is the conventional method of drilling holes directly towards the shale while the other method uses the technology called horizontal drilling. With the use of Horizontal drilling technology, well operators are able to drill even if the bore hole is not directly on top of the reservoir. As what its name suggest, horizontal drilling allows drill operators to drill horizontally and maneuver even under ground with increased control over the angle of the bore hole. Horizontal drilling was developed simultaneously with hydraulic fracturing wherein after drilling through the shale, a pressurized liquid combined with sand is injected to create cracks along the shale formation. The fluid used is more than 90% water while the rest are additives. On the other hand, the action of the sand is to automatically fill the gaps created by the hydraulic pressure to facilitate for the oozing of oil and natural gas towards the main hole for pumping . Technically speaking, the conventional drilling method is seldom employed because of its stark contrast with hydraulic fracturing. In using conventional drilling, extensive geotechnical information is needed to accurately pinpoint the location of the bore hole. Also, it takes too many bore holes in order to maximize production of which, on the other hand, is limited by the number of holes that the state permits (Holahan, R., & Arnold, G., 2013). For economic reasons, hydraulic fracturing is obviously the preferred drilling method by well operators.
Hydraulic Fracturing Hazards
As mentioned earlier, hydraulic fracturing is believed to be more than 90% water with the rest being additives. However, there is a growing controversy as to what are the chemical compositions of these additives and if they pose health and environmental risk. Some states have recognized the need for drilling companies to disclose the chemical contents of their hydraulic fracturing fluids but others does not have disclosure requirements. As observed by McFeeley, “More than half of the states with hydraulic fracturing activity currently have no disclosure requirements at all” while for those who have, enforcement of the disclosure rule seemed to be uneven. With all the fuzz going on about hydraulic fracturing, the public demand that its chemical contents should be revealed as well as what potential hazard does each chemical pose to human health as well as its potential hazard to the environment. So far, among the companies that use hydraulic fluids that were sampled, it revealed that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing vary from being harmless to extremely harmful. Among the harmful chemicals that are commonly used as an additive in hydraulic fracturing are methanol, benzene, lead, isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol and ethylene glycol. Apparently, benzene and lead are extremely toxic while the others are harmful chemicals with carcinogenic properties. Aside from the possible contamination of the ground water table from hydraulic additives, the release of oil and natural gas from its natural containment poses a more potent threat to the environment. Methane gas, which is a principal component in oil and natural gas reserves, have been detected to contaminate ground water in areas where drilling operation are being performed . In fairness to drilling companies, there is no evidence of fracking fluid contamination in most areas that were studied although substantial methane contaminations have been detected. The point though is, whether or not it is natural methane or drilling chemicals were the cause of contamination, it still stands that oil and natural gas drilling poses enormous environmental threat especially to the contamination of groundwater resources.
Biological Hazards and Threats to Biodiversity
As observed, most oil and natural gas deposits are found in the most bio-diverse regions of the globe. Especially with the advent of new drilling techniques such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, those hard-to-reach deposits that were dismissed as unreachable in the past are now within reach. With the unprecedented boom of the oil and gas industry, environmental scientists are concerned of the impact of these enthusiastic oil explorations to biodiversity and ecological balance on affected areas. Oil and natural gas plays or deposits, once identified, are prepared for exploration and drilling. These preparations implies that the area would have to cleared of vegetation if there are any and once production has reached economic levels, support activities such as construction of structures and facilities would cover a considerably huge area for development. This development includes the piping systems that transport oil and natural gas from the source to its end consumers. In short, oil and natural gas drilling operations disturbs a huge environmental area. Considering how bio-diverse most oil and natural gas environments are, there is indeed a reason for environmental people to be alarmed. The loss of biodiversity is just an initial problem. In fact, the string of events that could happen as a result of the unbalanced environment could be more devastating. Studies have shown that the reduction or loss of biodiversity would result in the spread of parasitic micro-organisms. Unlike in undisturbed environments where ecological balance between parasites and host are maintained, the disturbance caused by man-made activities such as oil and natural gas exploration exposes humans to known and unknown pathogens that would have been contained in their natural niche. For the same reason, the emergence of new illnesses caused by parasitic organisms can be attributed closely with drilling activities.
Oil and natural gas drilling activity is barely a controlled environment. In fact, several historical incidents serve as a reminder of how devastating oil and natural gas operations could be. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is just one example of the many accidental tragedies brought by oil and natural gas drilling. Deepwater Horizon was an exploration platform designed by Hyundai Heavy Industries for Transocean and leased to British Petroleum (BP) for the purpose of exploring the oil-rich region known as the Macondo play off the coast of Louisiana . The Macondo play was determined to have enormous reserves of oil and natural gas that is buried 13,000 to 15,000 feet beneath the seafloor. Deepwater Horizon’s task was to drill the Macondo play and extract its oil resources using conventional drilling methods. Despite precautionary measures, drillers were unable to contain the excessive flow of oil, gas and hydrocarbons through their drilling pipe. And as the gas expands rapidly due to the decreased pressure as it nears the surface, Deepwater Horizon drilling operation ended in an explosion that instantly killed 11 crews while spilling billion of barrel of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico that unfortunate day of April 20, 2010. The Deepwater Horizon incident was barely four years ago. Logically, the technology used on its drilling operation can be considered as among the top in its class yet it failed. Perhaps there are factors of negligence and miscalculation but the point is, the risk factors are too great to merit a thorough evaluation. The environmental damage of the Deepwater Horizon incident was also incalculable. The spill was considered as the largest spill in the history of the oil industry with an estimated 206 million gallons of crude oil spilling freely in the ocean. According to observers, oil gushed out freely from the well in a rate as high as 2.5 million gallons per day for 83 days until it was capped on July 15, 2010 following a series of failed attempts . The ripple effect of the spill to the region’s aquatic and marine life was devastating. By covering an area of 9,100 square miles, the spill could have wiped out and entire species of marine organism that resides at the bottom of the ocean by blocking out the sun . An undetermined number of marine and bird species also suffered because of the noticeable dead things that are washed ashore. The ripple effects of these incidents could not be accurately determined. However, scientists are worried that there are underlying implications for an environmental tragedy as big as the Deepwater Horizon incident. As one observer puts it, “It's the things we don't see that worry me the most. What happens if you wipe out all those jellyfish down there? We don't know what their role is in the environment. But Mother Nature put them there for a reason” (Case Study: The Gulf Coast and the BP Oil Spill , 2013).
Economic Gain vs. Environmental Protection
Technological advancement in oil and natural gas drilling have indeed increased the global production of oil and natural gas. In the United States, for example, the advent of new drilling technologies have increased fuel production to an unprecedented scale. Accordingly, as a result of hydraulic fracturing and advances in horizontal drilling technology, the U.S. oil and natural gas production in the U.S. have reached its peak in 2010. This increased production means cheaper fuel prices that has also ripple effects on the prices of goods and services. Also, the advancement in drilling technologies gave the U.S. a leeway of not being overly dependent on oil coming from the Middle East region. Considering how badly the U.S. needed a reliable fuel source to power its industries, it is quite unlikely that the government would support a total abandonment of drilling operations despite the environmental hazards that has been identified. So far, government intervention is limited to regulating drilling operations by setting acceptable standards as provided by regulations and policies such as the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to name a few. However, these regulations does not guarantee compliance since the actual drilling operation in the field is largely beyond the control of the government. In reality, the United States government does not have the capacity to totally abandon its reliance on oil and natural gas. It appears then, that environmental concerns are set aside for economic gains but then by doing so, the country is also placing the future of its environment at stake. The United States, therefore is facing an inescapable dilemma yet the options are quite limited. So far, mitigation techniques are being employed by drilling companies to minimize their environmental impact. Among the common mitigation techniques that are employed are the rehabilitation of abandoned sites by reforestation and introduction of plant and animal species.
After investigating the effects of oil and natural gas drilling operations, we can deduce that it does adversely impact the environment especially in the contamination of groundwater table. Aside from groundwater contamination, the environmental impacts of oil and natural gas drilling operation includes the destruction of natural habitats and the reduction or loss of biodiversity. Drilling operations also places large areas under the constant threat of largescale environmental hazards as what happened in the Deepwater Horizon accident. Consequently, the disturbance of nature’s balance as brought about by man-made activities such as oil and natural gas exploration exposes humans to health hazards through the possible contamination of parasitic elements. Over-all, there is a wide array of environment hazards with direct and ripple effects when drilling operations are scrutinized. However, the need for a reliable fuel supply is more pressing than environmental concerns. In fact, although the government are aware of the potential impact to the environment, the adverse effect of drilling does not merit a total ban. Rather, government intervention measures are limited to increased regulatory measures, which if analyzed, does not really help resolve the environmental issue. Perhaps it would take years before the world would be free from oil and natural gas dependency but until then, drilling operations is more likely to stay for an indifinite period. Somehow, the world would have to rely on technology to provide a check and balance between oil and natural gas exploration and environmental protection. All the while, it would have to focus and invest in researches on improving renewable energy source. Until then, the world would have to contend with oil and natural gas as its main fuel source, which means that it could not avoid picking up the drill.
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