40 Million Acres in the Gulf of Mexico Now Open to Oil Exploration

Veolia Environnement

by | Mar 5, 2014

In a new push by the Obama administration, as part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) will auction off 40 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to help facilitate the growth of US energy production.

In 2013, the Gulf of Mexico contributed 20 percent of the nation’s domestic oil and 6 percent of domestic gas production. Because of this, the area provided the largest portion of the $14.2 billion the U.S. government collects from mineral revenue.

So it should come as no surprise that the government would be interested in even more oil and gas exploration in the gulf. Finding more resources could help reduce America’s foreign oil dependency and generate more revenue for large oil companies and the government.

The 40 million acres, which will be auctioned off March 19, is part of BOEM’s Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, also called a Five Year Program, planned from 2012-17. In total, the program will lease almost 219 million acres of land to expand domestic energy production and reduce dependency on foreign oil.

So far, BOEM has leased three different sections of the gulf, which released 79 million acres for oil exploration and generated $1.4 billion in bids. After this latest round of lease auctions is completed in March, the BOEM will continue to progress in its five-year plan, auctioning off seven more sets of land in the Gulf of Mexico and three off the coast of Alaska by the end of 2017.

Most of the available acreage in the upcoming lease auctions, approximately 39.6 million acres, is located off the coast of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In this area, there are more than 7,500 unleased blocks, ranging from three to 230 miles off the coast, available for lease. BOEM estimates that the sale could produce 1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

A smaller portion of offshore land, about 465,000 acres, will be made available south of western Florida.  BOEM will auction off 134 whole or partially unleased blocks, located at least 125 miles from any point of land. This area should garner approximately 71 million barrels of oil and 162 billion cubic feet of natural gas, according to BOEM.

The two areas represent two different auctions, numbers 231 and 225 respectively. Each sale comes with stipulations, requiring companies to protect biologically sensitive resources and species and to avoid conflicts associated with the development of oil and gas in the region.

The environmental impact of new offshore wells

When you think about the environmental impact of offshore drilling, your mind probably jumps to the large oil spills that have dominated the news. Most prominent is probably BP’s 2010 oil disaster, when one of the company’s oil rigs exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and leaking an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean.

Despite the environmental dangers associated with drilling and a number of spills, the offshore oil industry has actually helped the aquatic environment in the gulf. That’s because the industry’s large oil rigs provide a valuable ecosystem where marine species can thrive.

Because of its cold, murky waters the Gulf Coast isn’t a place where reefs naturally occur. But offshore oil rigs act as a substitute, attracting a number of fish and invertebrates. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, marine life begins to take over these tall metal structures almost immediately. And within a year, an oil rig transforms into an artificial reef ecosystem.

Fish densities around oil rigs can swell as much as 100 times more than adjacent mud bottom habitats, according to a study by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Removing these structures can disrupt habitats and endanger aquatic life. With more than 3,000 oil rigs off the Gulf Coast, the Rigs to Reefs program, run by the BSEE, helps transform 100 decommissioned rigs into reefs each year to help preserve and grow marine wildlife.

Many eco-enthusiasts may not be happy about the government’s decision to open up additional acreage for drilling or the potential for more oil spills and pollution. But at the same time, it’s important to realize that the additional rigs could actually create ecosystems capable of sustaining increased aquatic life.

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