Why More Climate Change Means More Oil Spills

Hurricane Ida is showing the untenability of offshore oil and gas amid the climate crisis.
September 14, 2021, 1:00pm
offshore oil rig
Image:  Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

More than 2,000 reports of waterway pollution, including oil and chemical spills, and a segment of broken pipeline have been found in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Ida. Experts say this is a sign of the growing untenability of the miles of offshore oil and gas infrastructure that the US operates. 

In the two weeks since Ida ravaged Louisiana, leaving more than one million residents without power, divers have located large volumes of oil leaked underwater from infrastructure destroyed in the Category 4 hurricane’s wake. Nearly 90 percent of the region’s oil and gas production shuttered following the storm, and, as of Tuesday, more than 100 production platforms were decommissioned, in what some predict might be the worst-ever recorded damage to the region’s fossil fuel sector by a natural disaster

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“Offshore drilling is always dirty and dangerous, when a hurricane is added to the mix you put people and the environment at even greater risk,” said Sarah Giltz, marine scientist with advocacy group Oceana. 

The U.S. Coast Guard spent the week conducting flyovers around the southeastern region of Louisiana to hunt for spills. Houston-based energy company Talos is also conducting a cleanup of its own, after the Coast Guard’s initial claim that an underwater pipeline the company owns was the source of much of the leakage. The company maintains that while it previously operated drill rigs in the Gulf for offshore oil drilling, none of its current infrastructure was responsible for the spill.  

Experts have long warned that offshore oil and gas infrastructure and ever-worsening storms amid climate change are a dangerous mix. Hurricanes are responsible for a growing number of chemical releases and spills compared to other natural hazards, and Louisiana is home to the largest proportion in the country, by far, according to a 2010 report by Anna Maria Cruz, professor at the Disaster Prevention Research Institute at Kyoto University. 

“Climate change and extreme weather events represent a real physical threat to the oil and gas sector, particularly in low-lying coastal areas and areas exposed to extreme weather events,” Cruz and co-author Elizabeth Kraussman, also of Kyoto University, wrote in a 2013 paper.

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The 200 miles of water surrounding the U.S. in the Gulf of Mexico are home to a vast oil and gas infrastructure network responsible for around 15 percent of the country’s crude oil production. That includes 45,000 miles of pipelines, enough to circle the Earth at the equator twice. Many of these are no longer in use, and today sit idle in the sea. 

For decades, hurricanes have proven to be bad news for these structures. “Winds, waves, and currents can topple offshore oil platforms, rigs, and tankers,” said Melissa Whaling, science and policy associate at the Southern Environmental Law Center and author of a 2017 report on this topic, in an interview. Underwater, hurricanes can trigger mudslides, which unplug capped oil wells, she added, causing spills and fires that are “extremely difficult to contain.” 

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan damaged a cluster of 25 oil and gas wells off the coast of Alabama, some near a wildlife refuge, that continued to leak for more than a decade. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shut down eight refineries and hundreds of oil-drilling and production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving millions of dollars in damage in its wake. By 2019, none of the 540 spills located in Louisiana waters had been investigated in full, a ProPublica investigation found. In 2008, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike destroyed 60 production platforms, damaged 31 structures, and affected the production of 2 to 3 percent of the oil and gas produced in the region daily. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey released more than 2 million pounds of air pollutants into communities surrounding Texas. 

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Long a leading cause of oil spills, tropical storms and surging winds are growing in frequency and intensity as a result of the climate crisis caused by human consumption of fossil fuels, as has their damage to oceanic ecosystems and waterways that serve coastal communities.

“Evidence from the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates that hurricanes and oil and gas activities are not compatible,” Melissa Whaling, science and policy associate at the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote in a 2017 report on the topic.

According to experts, this trend is poised to grow larger. Not only are hurricanes  getting stronger and more frequent as a result of the climate crisis, but models of a world that is two degrees warmer predict rainfall increasing by 10-to-15 percent and cyclone intensities growing by 1-to-10 percent. 

And Louisiana, home to extensive oil and gas infrastructure along land that’s prone to subsidence—or sinking, at rates that have led to alarming amounts of land loss—is particularly vulnerable in this scenario. Its southern coastline, home to vulnerable wetlands, is dotted with oil and gas wells and refineries

"If you would look at all the pipelines, on a map, offshore, it looks like spaghetti, you just threw spaghetti in there. Pipelines everywhere, everywhere, everywhere," Wilma Subra, a chemist and technical adviser at the nonprofit Louisiana Environmental Action Network told CNN last week in a report on the hurricane’s damage.

It was near this web of rigs that Ida first touched land, by Port Fourchon, which serves as a land base for the state’s offshore oil and gas hub. Last week, a long black slick of oil was spotted in the region; it’s since been found to span for at least 11 miles. Since Talos claimed that none of its equipment was involved in the spill, no one has taken responsibility for it yet. 

The U.S. Coast Guard told CNN it is prioritizing the inspections of hundreds of other spills reported off the coast, the damage of which has yet to be measured in full. 

To Giltz, there is only one way to avoid future disasters like that which Ida caused: “We must stop the expansion of offshore drilling,” she said. “There are enough oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico to circle the Earth. Responsible decommissioning plans must be part of all offshore energy development to protect the environment as well as to prevent taxpayers from shouldering the cost of removing oil infrastructure.