Now the Twain Shall Meet: Offshore Oil and the Global Environment

by Sharon Cornet
Ashford University
Environmental Policy – POL 310
Professor: Robin Glenn

September 19, 2009


Now the Twain Shall Meet: Offshore Oil and the Global Environment

            From a global pollution and greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, the environment is a growing concern.  From a global economic standpoint, the need to run gas-dependent vehicles, and to provide plastics for medical and other products, the petroleum industry is also a growing concern.   Regarding the latter, the environmental concern is that oil is a nonrenewable resource and is a severe pollutant due to the many forms it takes.  However, to those connected to the oil industry in any way, the concern is usually focused on supply and demand, which includes price stabilization and keeping the economy running smoothly.   Offshore access to oil in the world’s oceans is oftentimes seen as a temporary solution to the limited supply on land.  It may appear that the environment and drilling for oil are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that these polar opposites will never meet in the middle.  It was Rudyard Kipling, in the 1892 Barrack-room ballads, that said, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" (  Yet now is the time in which these two facets of our economy and environment do indeed meet.   As economic globalization and environmental awareness continue into the future, offshore oil exploration will remain a component in international policy, and the contention between these realities will continue to increasingly overlap until they are eventually resolved.

            On the micro-scale, an example concerning this overlap is that this author has a unique position because she is a long time environmentalist, promoting sustainable and renewable energies.  At the same time, her husband, Dr. Bruce Cornet, is a geologist and palynologist, and has been working on his renewed interest in drilling for oil, both for income through self-employment, and for lessening the United States’ dependency on foreign oil.  Reconciling these two apparent sources for contention – environment and oil – lies the reality that even environmentalists drive cars that use gasoline, and even petroleum geologists can purchase a hybrid vehicle or live in a passive solar house.  On the macro-scale, environmentalism is a growing phenomenon worldwide, with local, regional, national, and international efforts moving toward this trend.  Likewise, drilling for oil and lessening dependence on land-based wells both on foreign soil and domestic soil, is the offshore drilling option, which includes a global economy and shared seas.  However, offshore drilling and transportation of crude oil in tankers brings the public, and especially environmentalists to the forefront of the argument.

            After this author had chosen this topic to write about, she received a synchronicitous email from a lady she did not know (Merle Savage), with a link to an online video entitled Worker Health and Safety During the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Cleanup in Alaska in 1989 (  Also, Savage’s own web page regarding the environment and the oil spill cleanup, titled Stories from the Sound ( was included.  While the latter goes into horrific detail on the health and safety problems (inhalation of poisonous vapors, injuries, and deaths) associated with that cleanup, the former deals with the similar injurious issues to both people, the ocean, plus other environmental factors due to the eleven million gallons of crude oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez.  According to the video over 1,800 illnesses and physical injuries were documented.  Approximately 70,000 gallons of toxic benzene evaporated from the crude, and 3,000 square miles of oil slick affected the coastal waters of Alaska.  This image is much of what the public at large saw in their minds for years afterwards when they thought about the problems associated with offshore drilling of oil.  The portrayal of oil drilling by the media, however, would continue to challenge the publics’ sudden desire to ban offshore drilling.

            The year following the Exxon Valdez spill, Kenneth Sheets (1990) wrote an article titled Calm Waters, Troubled Oil, from the U.S. News & World Report, claiming that banning offshore drilling would increase imports, but also raise gas prices (p. 35).  George H. W. Bush, considered as the “environmental” President was mentioned as being a “Texas oilman” who “helped establish the offshore drilling industry,” decided to make the coasts off limits to drilling (Sheets, 1990, p. 35).  Protection of the spotted owl was also a public focus, but the urge for citizens to curb fuel use was taken begrudgingly, and mixed feelings abounded. 

            This trend of opposites continued.  Five years later A. G. Dore wrote about the exceptional geologic opportunity under the Barents Sea, which is in the arctic area of the Atlantic ocean between Norwegian and Russian sectors.  According to Dore (1995), the area had extremely good reservoir properties for both natural gas and oil (p. 207).  Within four years, the NORIGS 2000 environmental, fishing, and community groups from the east coast of Canada gathered together to stop oil rigs from the Georges Bank in Nova Scotia due to it being a rich marine and fishery area (Breeze, 1999, p. 3).  Areas around the world continued in these kinds taffy-pulling debates as both environmentalism and the oil industry grew.

Economic globalization, which Moghadam (2005) defines as “deeper integration and more rapid interaction of economies through production, trade, and (unregulated) financial transactions” had spread fast.  However, much of the international business opportunities were unregulated under a free-market economy basis.  Because of this common unregulated stance the enforcement for quality control and prevention of air and water and ground pollutants was either nonexistent, severely lacking, or inferior.  It would take great effort on both the macro and micro scales of international governments, as a coordinated and equal effort, to combat this trend and begin reversing these problems that were contributing to global warming. 

Excessive amounts of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels were something that had to be dealt with, but how?  One idea was to deposit massive amounts of carbon dioxide into areas of the ocean or below the seabed that would retain it.  Karen Scott (2005) of the Georgetown International Law Review explored the idea of sequestering CO2 to see if it would work alongside the international law of the sea, applicable to the Southern Ocean all the way to the North Sea.  At the time, such CO2 injection was illegal according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  The only exceptions were scientific experiments or specialized recovery of oil and gas.  Meanwhile, offshore businesses were booming.

Global economics were evident by emerging international markets in areas such as China, Brazil, India, and Russia.  Offshore companies were distributed around the world, with many of the top companies coming out of offshore islands such as the Isle of Man, Bermuda, Guernsey, and the British Virgin Islands (OFFSHORE, 2007).  These areas are considered tax-neutral jurisdictions.  The U.S. and the Netherlands have been dipping into the economic globalization spring as well, but at what environmental expense to the common pool reseources such as the ocean itself?

International laws to regulate damage to the environment included the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).  By 2007, 155 countries had ratified LOST.  At that time, President George W. Bush was working with Senator Joe Biden (who was then a Presidential candidate) to attempt ratification of LOST through the Senate, but the attempts merely stewed for a while longer on the American front (Schlafly, 2007).  Later, in May of 2008 there was a conference in Greenland attended by five Ministers from the coastal nations surrounding the Arctic.  International law (UNCLOS) would determine which portions of underwater geology would be appointed to each of the five countries, with the narrow strip alloted to be altered to include giant portions of oil-rich seabed (Boswell, 2008).  With the potential for a larger, potentially exploitable area legally available to each country in the polar region, it is no wonder that the five competing countries handed over their authority to UNCLOS peaceably. 

By November of 2008, the Occupational Health publication announced that during the previous month more than fifty managers from offshore oil and gas companies met at a summit to discuss health and safety factors involved within the industry.   Among the problems from the past that were mentioned, the publication announced that “significant improvements have been made since disasters such as the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion in 1988” (Anonymous, 2008).  According to Mary Annette Rose (2009) in The Environmental Impact of Offshore Drilling, there are major health issues surrounding the drilling of offshore oil wells:

Exposure to fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulphur, and dozens of hydrocarbons (e.g., PAH) emitted from diesel and gasoline engines, is linked to a variety of health impacts, including asthma attacks, cancer, endocrine disruption, and cardiopulmonary ailments. Because toxins bio accumulate in fish, people who eat fish and shellfish from affected waters may experience nervous system effects, such as impairment of peripheral vision and seizure.

            Additionally, Exploration and Production, known as “E&P”, from offshore drilling can create wastes such as produced water (water mixed with hydrocarbons), drilling fluids, crushed rock cuttings, chemicals (bio cides, corrosion inhibitors, and solvents), deisel emissions, and resultant lead and mercury that winds up in the food chain (Rose, 2009).  It is imperative that companies do more than just develop regulations for health and safety of people, sea life, and the environment as a whole; strict environmental regulations must be part of the equation, as well as the funds and means for enforcement.

Aside from commercial and international rules and laws, the Law of the Sea Treaty was still stewing last year, and became a hot debate once again.  LOST was designed to deal with issues of ocean pollution (in any manner, including inland waterways and land-based scenarios that would affect marine environments) with the United Nations (UN), and could tax Americans without permission from congress (Jasper, 2009).  According to Jasper (2009), the sovereignty of the United States would be jeapardized by LOST, but it is still one of the Obama administration’s priorities to prevent further oceanic and environmental damage by America as well as other nations; so with this LOST would give much-needed control over the seas, which equals 71% of the earth’s surface, to the UN (p. 10).  The lack of regulation in the past has been a severe problem with ocean pollution on a global scale.

Due to the economic downturn last year that affected gas prices, and the desire to keep the U.S. involved in domestic oil as opposed to foreign oil, renewed interest has risen up once again toward offshore drilling.  According to Jeffrey Winter (2009) “The vast majority of offshore oil and gas production to date has been in the Gulf of Mexico, and there's not much in the report that suggests that the situation would change if restrictions were removed” even though “recoverable energy found in the wind, waves, and tides” are renewable energy resources that can be harnessed from the Gulf, Atlantic, and the Pacific coasts (2009, p. 53).  Ironically, the Gulf of Mexico is noted to be rich in oil, but poor in wind power, although the north Atlantic is known for its abundant wind but is poor in oil.  The short-term answer to some of the problems associated with the offshore oil and environmental contradiction is, perhaps, a marriage between different energy resources in the common pool areas of the world where it best suits.  In the meantime, taking serious care to invest in renewable and sustainable “green” energy resources to replace current gas-guzzling vehicles and other outdated or oil-dependent technologies would be paramount. 

It is in the areas of sound economic (and domestic) practices, and environmental policy at the global level, that will eventually ensure that the future for the countries of the world’s children, grandchildren, and future generations is restored.  Despite incrementalism in American and international policymaking, implementation, and enforcement, the environment has been, and still is being affected at the global level concerning offshore oil drilling.  As economic globalization and environmental awareness continue into the future, offshore oil exploration will remain a component in international policy, and the contention between these realities will continue to overlap until they are eventually resolved.  In the meantime environmental policy must be carefully and continually examined so as to ensure that the rights of the people are not stepped on, just as economic practices must be dutifully watched to ensure that the rights of all life within earth’s environment are not destroyed.


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Boswell, R. (2008, May 30). 'Arctic Five' call truce in land rush – for now. Edmonton Journal, A.12.  Retrieved September 19, 2009, from ProQuest Central. (Document ID: 1488168441).

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