Hurricanes blow into drilling debate

More and bigger storms are damaging gulf oil rigs, and some of the oil spills are killing wildlife at nearby refuges.

Published August 7, 2005

In the annals of foul weather, Tropical Storm Arlene ranks as little more than a big breeze. Arlene, the first named storm of 2005, swept across the northern Gulf Coast in June with top winds of about 60 mph, dropping a mere 4 inches of rain.

But Arlene left a destructive mark on the nation's second-oldest wildlife refuge, further fueling the ongoing debate over drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

As Arlene loomed, crew members evacuated the offshore oil and gas rigs that dot the waters off Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. After the storm passed, the crew of one Amerada Hess-owned rig returned to their platform 60 miles south of New Orleans and discovered the rig had spilled more than 550 gallons of oil.

That is a small spill - the equivalent of 45 barrels - but because the crew wasn't there to stop it, the oil flowed into the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Within a month, 700 birds died, nearly all of them endangered brown pelicans.

To opponents of offshore drilling, the risk of hurricanes causing a spill like the one at Breton boosts their arguments against ever allowing rigs to rise in the waters off the Florida coast.

"There is always the potential for catastrophe to occur," said Mark Ferrulo of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, which has long fought against offshore drilling in the eastern gulf.

But drilling advocates say hurricane-caused spills are so rare that they should not be much of a factor in the debate over drilling off of Florida.

When hurricanes threaten the rigs, "we shut them down very early so there's no risk associated with that," said David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council, an industry-backed group.

Besides, Mica pointed out, any drilling off Florida is likely to be aimed at natural gas, not oil.

Last month, the Bush administration tried to open the eastern gulf to oil and gas drilling by giving Louisiana a swath that's currently protected under federal deals with Florida. Florida lawmakers fought off that plan, but failed to block an inventory of resources.

As hurricanes in the gulf have increased in number and intensity, they have posed a greater problem for the nearly 4,000 rigs in the western gulf and the network of pipelines that connect them to the mainland.

In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew roared across Florida and then through the gulf, it knocked down 22 offshore oil rigs and damaged 65 more. Ten years later, Hurricane Lili damaged 17 offshore oil platforms - two of them so badly they collapsed. Then, last year, Hurricane Ivan destroyed seven oil platforms and significantly damaged 24 others.

In each case, the damage led to an oil spill. Andrew and Lili both caused spills of 500 barrels of oil. In each case, the spill was cleaned up or dissipated before it could wash ashore.

Ivan not only toppled rigs but also caused underwater mudslides that cracked open pipelines. Nearly 60 percent of the Pass-A-Loutre Wildlife Management Area near the mouth of the Mississippi River was damaged by a spill of more than 4,700 barrels from a Shell Oil Co. pipeline leak that killed hundreds of birds. And the Gulf Production Co. spilled 300 barrels of oil, which damaged delicate marshes at Delta National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Breton.

"Hurricane Ivan should be a wakeup call for the entire offshore oil industry that hurricanes can severely impact our pipeline infrastructure," said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club's Delta Chapter.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.