Offshore drilling produces not just oil but fish — and lots of them
“President Biden continues to limit American energy production” while “begging foreign countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia to produce oil for us,” fumes House Republican Whip Steve Scalise. He’s right: More than 70% of oil production on federally governed sites comes from offshore sources, yet 94% of offshore acreage remains off limits to development, the American Petroleum Institute notes.
Environmental superstitions are behind most of this exploration ban. Yet far from an environmental disaster, offshore drilling is an environmental bonanza, as study after study has shown. The science, you might say, is settled.
According to the Energy Information Administration, offshore production in the federally governed portions of the Gulf of Mexico accounts for 17% of US crude oil production. Louisiana alone has more than 3,000 of the 4,000-plus oil-production platforms in the Gulf off its coast, yet it nonetheless is able to supply almost a third of North America’s fisheries.
Surprisingly, Hollywood once hailed the environmental benefits of offshore drilling. The first platforms went up in 1947. By 1953 Hollywood was hailing the pioneering wildcatters who moved mountains to tap this region. In the 1953 movie “Thunder Bay,” Jimmy Stewart plays Steve Martin, the hard-bitten ex-Navy oil engineer who built the first platform off Louisiana. “The brawling, mauling story of the biggest bonanza of them all!” says the Universal ad for the studio’s first widescreen movie.
Stewart’s project at first seemed to clash with the local Cajuns who fished and shrimped in the area. Their livelihood, it seemed obvious at the time, would soon vanish amid irreversible pollution. Yet the flick ends on a happy note, as the fishermen reap a bonanza: The oil structures had served as artificial reefs and led to a bigger haul than ever.
Fast forward half a century and a study by Louisiana’s sea-grant college showed that 70 percent of Louisiana’s offshore fishing trips target these structures.
“Oil platforms as artificial reefs support fish densities 10 to 1,000 times that of adjacent sand and mud bottom, and almost always exceed fish densities found at both adjacent artificial reefs of other types and natural hard bottom,” a University of South Alabama study showed. “Massive areas of the northwestern Gulf of Mexico were essentially empty of red snapper stocks for the first hundred years of the fishery. Subsequently, areas in the western Gulf have become the major source of red snapper, concurrent with the appearance of thousands of petroleum platforms.”
Fact is, “villainous” Big Oil produces more fish than Mother Nature. “The fish biomass around an offshore oil platform is 10 times greater per unit area than for natural coral reefs,” says LSU’s Charles Wilson. Between 10,000 and 30,000 fish live around an oil platform in an area “half the size of a football field.”
“Oh, sure!” comes the Greenie-Weenie retort. “But you’re very conveniently forgetting the infamous BP oil spill!”
Not really: The FDA’s Gulf Coast Seafood Laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory and numerous other agencies have repeatedly tested Gulf seafood for cancer-causing “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”
“Not a single sample has come anywhere close to levels of concern,” reported Olivia Watkins, executive media advisor for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
That this proliferation of seafood in the Gulf came because — rather than in spite — of the oil production rattled environmental cages and provoked scoffers, including some Travel Channel producers who’d read these claims in my book “The Helldiver’s Rodeo.” The book describes an undersea panorama that, if true, could make an interesting show, the producers concluded. Yet they scoffed as we dined on raw oysters, grilled redfish and seafood gumbo that night.
Ha! After exploring the waters, they went ahead and produced a program that showcased a panorama, putting the lie to the environmental superstitions. They saw school after school of fish — from 6-inch blennies to 12-foot sharks. Fish by the thousands. Fish by the ton.
The cameramen couldn’t decide what to focus on first: The shoals of barracuda? That cloud of jacks? The immense schools of snapper? We had close-ups, too, of coral and sponges, the very things disappearing off Florida’s pampered reefs, even though it bans offshore drilling.
So it’s not just badly needed oil these rigs produce. Turns out they’re great for the food supply and great for the environment as well. The naysayers are out of excuses.
Humberto Fontova is an author and serious outdoorsman from New Orleans.