A number of environmentalists are worried that “Pandora’s Box” has been opened by President Obama’s proposal for offshore drilling off the Atlantic Coast. But others point out data from the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior which indicates its unlikely to find oil and natural gas off the South Carolina Coast. However, University of South Carolina Geology Professor Jim Knapp says the Interior Department data is dated and miles off the South Carolina coast would be as good a place as any to explore for oil and gas.
“Those estimates are based on data now that are literally decades out of date so the reliability of the data can be questioned. The industry has much more effective means of evaluating those potential reserves based on new data acquisition techniques and new analysis techniques and those certainly have not been applied to the Atlantic continental shelf.”
From the late 1940’s to the 1980’s oil companies drilled five wells in Atlantic Florida state waters and 51 exploratory wells on federal leases on the outer continental shelf of the Atlantic coast. None of the wells were completed as producing wells.
Knapp says oil exploration is not a task that happens overnight. It can be long, arduous and expensive. Knapp says a technique called seismic reflection imaging is used in which an acoustic signal is sent down in the ground and data is recorded as the energy bounces back from each area of the subsurface. Knapp says even this preliminary step is usually a very costly enterprise, and that has to occurs long before a drill bit breaks the surface.
“Depending on what the water depths are, the cost of actually drilling an exploration well can be substantial. They can range from tens of millions of dollars to in some cases approaching hundreds of millions of dollars depending on the water depth. It is not a trivial expense to go out and explore for oil and gas even in this day and age.”
Knapp says because of the expense involved, petroleum companies will be very deliberate in their study before any exploration or offshore drilling is done in any previously unexplored regions, including those off the coast of South Carolina.
Knapp says contrary to what many believe, if by chance oil and/or natural gas is found off the coast of South Carolina, that doesn’t mean that the Palmetto State would cease being a great place for vacationers. He says oil exploration offshore and tourism can peacefully coexist.
“The impact on the tourist industry, certainly that’s going to continue to be a major economic force for the state for years to come, but I think there is every reason to believe that exploration activities and even production activities could go forward if planned appropriately that would have minimal or no effect on the impact of the tourist industry here in South Carolina.”
Knapp says those who are not clear about oil exploration offshore always conjure up the fear of oil spills. He says those fears are mostly unwarranted.
“The vast majority of oil that ends up in the sea is actually getting there from natural leakage from the sea bed. The second greatest contributor to oil in the sea is actually runoff from the land surface where it’s picked up by rainwater and dumped into the sea. Only a small percentage of the oil that ends up in the sea comes from oil exploration and production.”
Although no oil or gas has been produced from beneath U.S. Atlantic waters, there are active offshore fields to the south off the coast of Cuba, and to the north off the Canadian coast.