Lessons for Florida's Coastline: Offshore Drilling's Ugly History of Profits and Ecological Losses in the Gulf of Mexico

Kathy LaFollett

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Offshore platforms and rigs.Photo byAdobe Express Pro

East then Southeast of the Permian Basin in western Texas and eastern New Mexico, there is The Third Coast. The coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. And just off the coast of Louisiana, leased, unleased, and owned oil and gas platforms create a snarl of rigs, pipelines, ship to shore, and air to land traffic. Platforms orphaned, abandoned, unknown, untracked, or working. These constructs affect every linear foot of coastal waters of The Third Coast. And not in a good way. Florida isn’t the only state with a Gulf coastline. We are a state that spends as much time and money mitigating bad publicity about our beaches as we do writing the good stuff. The Sunshine State has an affair of the heart for our coastline.

Some politicians know offshore drilling is bad enough to merit permanently keeping a gluttonous beehive of environmental devastation off our coast. They have filed a bill to permanently ban all drilling off Florida. And we need to support Buchanan and Castor on that one. Buchanan stated, “Allowing drilling off of Florida’s coasts would be a colossal mistake,” Buchanan said. “As we learned from the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil explosion in 2010, our state cannot afford another spill that would threaten our economy, our environment and our way of life.”

Former president Donald Trump issued an executive order to protect both coasts of Florida from drilling through June 2032 just before his 2020 campaign run. Current or future administrations can undo that action, so it requires an act of Congress to make the ban permanent. Hence the bill submitted by Buchanan and Castor. Rubio gave it a go with his own bill in 2021. Permanently blocked profits are a lobbyist’s arch nemesis, though.

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One of roughly 1789 accounted for platforms off the coast of Louisiana.Photo byAdobe Express Pro

The legacy of drilling off the coast of Louisiana lays out the roadmap to Deepwater Horizon's manifestation. It's not the only one currently. Nor is it the last. Because there is no oversight. It’s the wild west. The history of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico reads like a frontier story, which is also a nightmare story at times. Progress is a struggle between the possibility dreamers and the profit makers. So it goes in the Gulf waters. Thunder Horse, Deepwater Horizon, and as of 2020, roughly 1790 other leased and known drilling platforms. Orphaned, unleased, and abandoned platforms are hard to count accurately. Because the regulations didn’t mandate keeping track so much as setting up. The last real estimate based on research, local interviews, maritime mapping, and documents on file investigation was in 2010. That number was 27,000.

In 2021 the Government Accountability Office released a report stating the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement “does not have a robust oversight process for ensuring the integrity of approximately 8,600 miles of active offshore oil and gas pipelines located on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico,” nor does it have “robust process to address the environmental and safety risks posed by leaving decommissioned pipelines in place on the seafloor.” Furthermore, “the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has allowed the offshore oil and gas industry to leave 97% of pipelines (18,000 miles) on the seafloor when no longer in use,” since the 1960s. “Pipelines can contain oil or gas if not properly cleaned in decommissioning.”

If this feels familiar, it should. Consider this year’s Florida Legislators and their goals for and on behalf of land developers in the State of Florida. The Session of Sprawl, or SB540 and HB 349. The struggle between possibility and profit rages on from land to sea. Lobbyists crouch in dark corners of Tallahassee.

The Taylor Platform collapse after Hurricane Ivan created the Taylor Leak that has lasted three presidential administrations, so far. Maybe you didn't hear about it. In 2019, Taylor Energy filed suit to stop the government’s efforts to fix the leak. In 2021, a $43 million dollar fine was levied against Taylor Energy, which also included a $475 million dollar fund creation for cleanup. Taylor does not admit to any liability as part of the agreement. In November 2021, Phyllis Taylor, widow to founder Patrick F. Taylor, remained CEO of the company with the longest ongoing oil spill in US History. The Gulf of Mexico’s disaster was her income tax write off. As of July 2022, Taylor Energy Company LLC dissolved to meet the cleanup fund costs. A billionaire saved 14 years of income tax expenses, and the longest ongoing oil spill in US History is capped, but still leaking. And the company who capped Taylor’s grift has thoughts on that.

The history of gulf drilling, the players involved, and the government’s indifference so the industry could self-regulate created a Bermuda triangle of greed. It’s also created massive negative effects on marine ecosystems, wildlife in the gulf, wildlife on the shore, and wildlife on and near intercoastal waterways. Human health, tourism, local economies, and the decades long continuous cleanup of Deepwater Horizon alone has left environmental injury still felt today. The National Resources Defense Council sums up all the coastal drilling impacts in an excellent pdf read.

Thirteen years after Deepwater Horizon, The Academy of Science found technology and investment improvements, but panel chairman Richard Sears said, “There are a lot of things that are happening that are really good, but the industry is not at a place” where it should be. “They have not figured out how to naturally embrace safety in particular... in who they are and what they do” but instead treat it like a box to check off. Seth Borenstein, an AP Science Writer, wrote an excellent article containing more of the above conversation here.

Unlike problems on land in our cities and counties here in Florida, we can’t see what is happening under, on, or around oil and gas platforms in our coastal waters. Nor can we affect change other than at the legislative pressure points. The same pressure points energy lobbyists use. Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has been a hotly debated idea since 1938 when Pure Oil and Superior Oil Company built a 320-foot by 180-foot wooden platform and deck in just 14-feet of water just under a mile offshore of Creole, Louisiana. The first platform ever was in 1894 off the Santa Barbara Channel in California. Henry Williams drilled two wells. Exploring for profit.

The struggle between possibility and profit rages on from land to sea. Profit seekers grind all to gristle to pave the way for plans. Profiteers have shut down possibility in Florida since Hernando DeSoto told Charles V Florida was an uninhabitable sandbar. No one asked the Calusa Indians how they felt about it.

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Florida author, speaker, and wildlife/companion animal advocate writing about life in the Sunshine State from my cityscape, St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg, FL
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