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Does Pacific Northwest have any offshore oil to drill for?

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Offshore oil drilling platforms along the California coastline in Huntington Beach, California.

The Trump administration’s plan to open up Washington and Oregon’s outer continental shelf to offshore oil exploration has angered many Northwest officials, Republicans included.

But a simple question has been lost in the rhetoric. Is there any recoverable oil there, and is it enough to attract oil companies?

Much like everything with a political bent, one can find differing opinions to that answer.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) 2016 assessment estimates there’s about 400 million barrels of oil in the outer continental shelf off Washington and Oregon. It also estimates the same area contains 2.28 trillion cubic feet of gas.

That seems like a lot, but they are small in light of U.S daily use of oil — about 20 million barrels — and by comparison to other suspected oil reserves: BOEM says there’s 120 times more oil as yet untapped in the Gulf of Mexico (48 billion barrels) and 25 times more untapped oil off the California coast (10 billion barrels).

Dave Norman, a geologist with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, said there there’s only been one coastal well that’s produced oil in the Northwest: Located near Ocean City, it produced 12,000 barrels in 1961. It was also situated on land, not offshore. Three or four Washington offshore wells were bored off the Washington Coast in the ‘60s, but none found oil or gas.

“The potential for commercial oil and gas off the coast of Washington is pretty low, given what information we know now,” he said.

Norman added that before a petroleum company would drill, they would have to gather seismic data of undersea rock formations. More advanced technology could potentially find more oil and natural gas than expected off Washington’s Coast.

“There’s a lot of new technology that’s been developed, so you can’t rule out what impact that will have,” he said.

Cornelia Horner, a spokeswoman with the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group that represents the oil and natural gas industry, said that modern technology should help the energy sector find new sources of oil and gas underwater.

“The last time we did a seismic survey is 30 years ago, and … we really don’t know what’s out there,” she said. “We have advanced technologies that will show us what’s out there.”

John Romero, a spokesman for BOEM’s Pacific Region offices, said the agency is developing a new oil and gas leasing program. He stressed that just because an area is included in the Interior Department’s draft proposal doesn’t mean it will be included in the official proposal or the final program.

Instead, Romero said that the agency is seeking public comment and information about expanding the nation’s offshore oil and gas leasing program.

“The Department believes that industry is in the best position to make decisions about where exploration and information gathering should occur,” Romero said in an email.

If industries do attempt to drill for oil and natural gas off of Washington’s Coast, however, they’ll come up against a brick wall. State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said in an interview with The Daily News Thursday that the state manages all public aquatic lands from the coast out to three miles, and any company would likely need to use Washington’s land for infrastructure, even if oil leasing is proposed farther out, as planned. She said she had no plans to approve that.

“I don’t foresee oil well infrastructure as being in the best interest in our state,” Franz told The Daily News.

The Sierra Club, an environmental group, also is opposed.

“We refuse to let Washington State go backwards,” said Victoria Leistman, an organizer for the group. “Our lives and livelihood depend on the culture of a healthy coast, especially (for) indigenous communities. There’s no way that’s worth any price.”

According to Seattle environmentalist think tank Sightline Institute, the Northwest has seen a number of oil spills already, including tugboats and tanker ships spilling oil near the Quinault Indian Reservation in 1964, Makah Bay in 1972, and the Columbia River near Woodland in 1984. (In that 1984 spill, a steering failure caused the tanker Mobiloil to ram into Warrior Rock, which ripped a hole in the hull and spilled 230,000 gallons of fuel oil into the river. Oil flowed all the way to the coast, contaminating shellfish beds and killing thousands of seabirds.)

A Washington Department of Ecology report also documented two separate refinery spills in 1991, one in Anacortes and one in Tacoma, the former of which released 40,000 gallons into Fidalgo Bay.

In January, the American Petroleum Institute issued a press release that attempted to ease concerns about environmental and worker safety.

“The oil and natural gas industry has the experience and advanced technology to develop the nation’s offshore energy safely, API Upstream Director Erik Milito said in the release. “We are continuously developing and improving safety standards, programs, new technologies, and best practices to protect our workers, the environment and marine life.”

The Interior Department will have a public meeting about the oil leasing plan from 3 to 7 p.m. March 5 at the Red Lion, 2300 Evergreen Park Drive S.W. in Olympia.


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