Terry Tamminen (Author & Environmental Policy Advisor) gives expert video advice on: What are the risks of building oil wells in US coastal waters? and more...
What is an "oil well"?
An oil well is a place on land or at sea where drilling takes place to extract oil from below the earth. And just like you have a drill at home that you use to drill a hole in wood, imagine a giant drill tipped up and drilling down into the earth. Oil wells are sometimes mounted on a platform at sea so that you can drill below the seabed until you get to the deposits of oil. That oil can then be brought to the surface. This is called an oil well.
What are the risks of building oil wells in US coastal waters?
There are numerous risks to having oil wells in US costal waters. The first of these is the risk of blowouts or spills. As you can imagine, when you're drilling into a formation that has been pressurized over thousands of years, suddenly you can have a release of gasses or oil that can spill out all over the ocean. You can have accidents where ships can collide with these wells, or mistakes in the way they're managed can cause blowouts and oil can spill all over the ocean. It's argued that the modern environmental movement began in 1969 when there was a blowout of an oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara in California that covered beaches for miles with oil, for several years.
How does offshore oil drilling damage the ocean?
Oil drilling at sea and on land are very hazardous activities, not just because of the risk of blow-out and spills, but because as the drill goes down into the earth through rock and sediment material to get to the oil, it has to be cooled, and so, oil drillers use what they call drilling muds, which are very thick lubricants that are put on the end of the drill to keep it from overheating. These lubricants include very toxic materials, heavy metals and mercury. In the case of the ocean, as you can imagine, when you're drilling there's no way to control these lubricants, so all of those tons and tons of drilling muds end up on the seafloor and that puts tons of toxic materials, including mercury, into the ecosystem.
What are the health effects of mercury on the human body?
Mercury is one of the more insidious toxins with respect to human health because we bioaccumulate it. For example, if you ate one aspirin every single day you would be perfectly fine for your enitre life. In fact, there is some evidence that it would help your health. But, if you took the same amount of mercury everyday it would build up in your system day after day after day until it killed you. Frankly, if you took that much you'd be dead within a year.
What are the dangers of abandoned oil wells?
Abandoned oil wells are dangerous because very few of them are really properly capped or retired. Most of these oil wells are just covered with dirt, and very few of them ever get checked after that takes place. So pressure that builds up from gases in the earth and shifting earthquakes, things like that, can cause that oil and gas to come back to the surface, even on a oil well that's been capped. And then of course, that causes spills and emissions from those abandoned oil wells that harm both air and land and water.
How does leaking oil contaminate ground and surface water?
Leaks from oil wells, and just the oil itself if you're at sea, is dangerous as the ocean water will spread the petroleum to the shore. That then fouls the shoreline, which is used by birds, sea lions, and other animals depending on what kind of wildlife you have in the area when the leak from the oil well takes place. On land, the toxins from the oil well leak can remain and render the land useless for agriculture, or for building on because of the amount of toxins. Anyone who lives near a place where this kind of oil has spilled from that sort of a site suffer, as there's a lot of air pollution resulting from that oil well leak, so people who live downwind are put at risk.
How have indigenous tribes on every continent been affected by the oil industry?
The oil industry has not been a particularly good neighbour to indigenous tribes when it's gone into countries, especially third world countries, where there's not a lot of environmental regulation. In South America, in Africa, and in many other parts of the globe with such indigenous tribes, where the oil industry go in and simply drill for oil, they leave their spent drilling muds which are the lubricants that lubricate the drilling wells. The oil industry also leave all kinds of other processed material and heavy metals, and oil itself, spewed all over the ground, and don't clean it up. That creates toxic wastelands for the people, in many cases indigenous tribes, who live there yet will never benefit from oil and who don't even use mechanized transportation.