Not the Answer recently had the chance to interview John Jelks (known to his friends as “JJ”). John is a marine geologist who spent over 10 years in the 1980s and early 1990s working as a Houston-based contractor for major oil companies on oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. He now works as a network engineer in Florida.

John, tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up and go to school? What degree(s) do you have?

I grew up in Delaware, where we spent most of our time out at Mom’s house in Bethany Beach. As long as I can remember, my Dad would push us into waves riding those old blue canvas surf mats with the rubber yellow ends. I rode kneeboards at Indian River Inlet (“Southside” jetty break) during the 1970s and early 1980s. I bodysurfed there a lot during blackball time. I went to college at Long Island University in Southampton, NY. The surf on Long Island is great and it took discipline to balance my studies and surfing. I graduated with a B.S. in Marine Geology in 1981. By then I was riding a fish, a long board, and my kneeboard.

After getting your degree in Marine Geology, tell us about your job working as a marine geologist on oil drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. What did your work consist of?

I worked as an oil and gas exploration geologist; both out in the field drilling and in the computer center processing data. Offshore, it takes roughly 2 to 6 months to drill a well. The time it takes to drill a well depends on the depth of water in which the drilling is done, the depth into the earth one is drilling, and accidents like snapping the drilling pipe and losing the drill bit. My job was to be on these rigs for 1 to 3 days and check progress of drilling by analyzing the rock chips in the drilling mud that comes back out of the hole. Drilling mud is injected at high velocity for lubrication, and to keep pressure on the hole if pockets of natural gas are hit. I would make several visits to a platform during the drilling of one well. After the drilling was done, all of the pipe would be pulled out of the drilling hole so we could lower instruments into the bottom of the well and take measurements all the way up the well hole. When the drilling was completed, the drilling platform was moved to a new location. The well was capped and a pipeline was attached to pump the oil onto land for refining.

Were there any drilling or operational practices that you observed on the drilling rigs that concerned you? What were they? How often did they occur?

One practice that bothered me was that all of the garbage generated by daily human activity was simply thrown off the rig (refuse from cooking, cleaning, equipment maintenance). Bear in mind that the working and living space on these drilling platforms is extremely confined. This garbage dumping occurred daily.

The other practice that bothered me was that the drilling mud coming back out of the hole ended up in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the mud came up to the platform so that rock chips could be analyzed, but most of the mud was dispersed out into the Gulf. Onshore, it is placed into mud pits. Offshore, it is simply released into the water. Although some studies have indicated that roughly 90% of the drilling mud falls within 100 meters of the rig, my observations indicate a larger impact. Flying to the offshore platform by helicopter, I could see a plume of sediment moving down current, especially with wells drilled in shallower depths. This practice of dumping mud occurred for the duration of drilling. The drilling mud used in the 1970s and 1980s was oil-based Bentonite clay. This clay contains the metals Aluminum, Iron, Magnesium, and Manganese. Drilling mud in use today is water based, which is easier on the environment, but Bentonite is still used as the base component. Relating to the proposed drilling offshore of Florida, even minor silt deposition will kill any living reef.

You mentioned release of toxic drilling mud into the ocean. Can this be avoided or is it just “standard operating procedure”?

Yes, most of it can be avoided and today recycling drilling mud is a common practice. In countries that have environmental regulations (Australia, USA, and others) mud recycling systems are used. The same mud is filtered and re-injected into the well. I do not know what practices are used for handling drilling mud in offshore Nigeria, Indonesia, or China.

The trash dumping from rigs has probably stopped. I have no recent information. I know that the Florida Surfrider chapters have made great gains working with the commercial cruise lines to limit dumping trash and raw sewage in offshore waters during 3-day casino cruises around offshore Florida.

You’ve lived and worked in both Texas and Florida. Describe the differences in the beaches and the offshore marine environment.

The beaches in Texas are beautiful, made up of a mixture of fine quartz and coral. Texas is known as the “Third Coast” for surfers in the United States. There is good surf when the conditions are right. One only need pick up the Winter ‘09 issue of The Surfer’s Journal for proof. There is a lot of trash that has washed up on the beach because the prevailing winds are southeast. The most disturbing thing is the oil and tar balls that wash up all over the beach from the oil rigs. When you step on them, your feet get coated with black tar. Many Texas beach houses have bottles of vegetable oil or kerosene with rags by the ocean porch to clean one’s feet before entering the house.

The west and east coast beaches in Florida are also amazing. The beach is mostly coral sand, and the water is clear. Cocoa Beach, near where I live, has a lot of trash but it’s mostly thrown there by beach visitors. Some blows in from the Atlantic since the prevailing winds are east. The beaches on the gulf side are tropical and lovely. There is still a lot of trash tossed by beach goers near big cities like Tampa. However, I would describe Florida’s gulf coast beaches outside of urban areas as pristine. The offshore marine environment is in good condition and is a major attraction for sports fishing.

Are the differences natural or can some of them be attributed to offshore oil and gas operations?

Some of the differences are natural. Because of the prevailing southeasterly winds, Texas can’t help but end up with half of the Gulf of Mexico’s trash blowing onto the beaches.

The tar balls in Texas are from the oil and gas operations. Spillages and accidents do occur on the rigs; underwater oil pipelines sometimes beak; and tankers flush their bilges offshore.

Tar and oil is absent on the gulf coast beaches in Florida, except the western panhandle, which is close to the Louisiana offshore drilling areas.

Would you say that Florida’s gulf coast beaches and offshore reefs would be impacted or at risk if offshore drilling is allowed within a few miles of the coast?

Yes, Florida’s beaches would definitely be at risk from major oil spills and contamination from hurricane-wrecked oil rigs and broken underwater oil pipelines. Even if there is no drilling mud leakage or trash tossed off the rigs, there would still be accidents caused by humans and equipment failure that would result in oil spills. The oil pumped from the Gulf of Mexico is heavy crude oil, the kind of oil spill that will float on top of the water until it washes up on some beach.

Hurricanes would cause widespread oil rig damage and breaking of underwater oil pipelines. Offshore drilling proponents claim that there were no spills caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I urge people to read the federal government’s own report (15MB pdf) on what happened when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit land near Louisiana. Focus on Chapter 7, which outlines damage to the petroleum infrastructure, and Chapter 6, which lists the 124 resulting oil spills. At least skim through the report and look at the pictures of the damage and complex network of underwater oil pipelines. In addition, here is a link to a newspaper article on post-Katrina oil spills.

Would there also likely be impacts to marine resources and recreational fishing?

Yes, very likely. It is an understatement to say that salt water fishing is popular in Florida’s gulf coast waters. As I have said, the Gulf of Mexico off Florida is pristine. This could all be polluted with one good hurricane breaking pipelines and dumping rig chemicals into the marine environment. Once an area has been polluted, it takes years to recover. Once a reef has been destroyed, it may never come back. Offshore drilling is as much a threat to the gulf’s ecosystem as over-fishing.

Proponents of offshore oil drilling cite several potential benefits, including increased state revenues, lower gas prices, and greater energy independence. At the same time, they say that “modern technology” makes drilling safe and the beaches are not at risk. What are your reactions to those claims?

It would take 10 years for petroleum development efforts to produce more gasoline. Companies have to explore, drill, and create the complex infrastructure for offshore Florida before we would see this oil reach the gas stations. Instead, I believe that conservation through better car engine technology is the best first step, with augmentative energy technology being the best second step. The world will be dependant on oil and gas for years to come until solar, wind, and other forms of energy generation are perfected and widely used.

I believe that “modern technology” has made offshore drilling much safer and cleaner. But as a network engineer, I have seen first hand that humans make mistakes, and that state of the art equipment fails. We have clear evidence (Katrina) that one hurricane could cause lasting damage to Florida’s ecosystem from crude oil spillage. The increased state revenues from oil and gas development would be offset by the loss of Florida’s tourism income and the costs of damage repair.

Lastly, when crude oil is being pumped through underwater pipelines, then there is the need for large storage tanks on land to hold this oil. I am pretty sure most Floridians would not want one of these huge storage facilities in their backyard. Once the heavy crude oil is stored onshore, what happens next? A refinery? A deep water port facility to load the crude oil onto tankers for transport to existing refineries? Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor are the only two deep water ports on the gulf coast of Florida. The storage and transfer of crude oil in either of these bays would turn them into a tar pit when (not if) accidents occur.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

If offshore drilling is allowed in Florida, regulations can later be changed to allow drilling near shore. I hear some people and politicians in Florida screaming “Drill Baby, Drill” and they do not understand the consequences. All they see is the money and “short term” benefits. Proposed offshore drilling in Florida represents greed, not need. The leap of gas prices to $4/gallon along I-95 after hurricane Ike hit Texas, and the post Katrina increases were due to refinery shutdowns, NOT the supply of available oil. Those two price hikes really got the public’s attention. But offshore oil drilling is not the answer.

As I mentioned, the short term focus should be on conservation, efficiency improvements and “augmentative energy”. In the longer term, “alternative energy” can completely wean us off of oil.

References

Offshore drilling
http://earthsci.org/mineral/energy/gasexpl/offshore.html
(note that the source is Australian Institute of Petroleum, so they tend to discount environmental risks, which is interesting in light of the recent Timor Sea oil spill)

Drilling mud
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drilling_fluid

Drilling mud dispersal (scroll down)
http://www.countyofsb.org/energy/documents/projects/tranquillonEIR/App_D.pdf

Hurricane damage: (focus on chapter 7, especially 7.3 which is underwater pipeline damage)
http://www.mms.gov/tarprojects/581/44814183_MMS_Katrina_Rita_PL_Final%20Report%20Rev1.pdf

More hurricane damage refs
http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/nation/3457319.html

http://www.scandoil.com/moxie-bm2/news/mms-releases-updated-damage-assessments-from-hurri.shtml

Coral Reef Conservation
http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/programs/coral/