Speaking before Houston oilmen Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) declared his support for lifting the 25-year federal moratorium on offshore drilling. He justified this reversal of his longstanding opposition by explaining that it’s now “safe”:
As for offshore drilling, it’s safe enough these days that not even Hurricanes Katrina and Rita could cause significant spillage from the battered rigs off the coasts of New Orleans and Houston.
McCain is repeating a popular myth. As the hackish Newsweek and Washington Post editor Robert Samuelson wrote on April 30, 2008, “Despite extensive damage, there were no major spills, says Robbie Diamond of Securing America’s Future Energy, an advocacy group.” In the weeks following Katrina and Rita’s one-two strike in the summer of 2005, the Bush administration claimed there was “only minor sheening” from offshore oil spills.
In fact, the clear satellite evidence of major spills was borne out by final reports. In May 2006, the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) published their offshore damage assessment: “113 platforms totally destroyed, and 457 pipelines damaged, 101 of those major lines with 10″ or larger diameter.”
Pipeline damage from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (MMS 2007). Click to enlarge.
Unsurprisingly, this devastation caused significant spillage, according to the official report prepared for the MMS by a Norwegian firm:
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Caused 124 Offshore Spills For A Total Of 743,700 Gallons. 554,400 gallons were crude oil and condensate from platforms, rigs and pipelines, and 189,000 gallons were refined products from platforms and rigs. [MMS, 1/22/07]
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Caused Six Offshore Spills Of 42,000 Gallons Or Greater. The largest of these was 152,250 gallons, well over the 100,000 gallon threshhold considered a “major spill.” [MMS, 5/1/06]
In addition, the hurricanes caused disastrous spills onshore throughout southeast Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf Coast as tanks, pipelines, refineries and other industrial facilities were destroyed, for a total of 595 different oil spills. The 9 million gallons reported spilled were comparable with the Exxon Valdez’s 10.8 million gallons, but unlike the Exxon Valdez, were distributed throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, and other Gulf Coast states, many in residential areas. The most massive spills included:
— The Bass Enterprises Cox Bay spill of 3.78 million gallons of oil, the largest spill caused by the hurricanes
— The Murphy Oil spill in Mereaux, LA of 819,000 gallons of oil, contaminating 1,700 homes and the local high school
As the Houston Chronicle reported in 2005:
The quantity and cumulative magnitude of the 595 spills, which were spread across four states and struck offshore and inland, rank these two hurricanes among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history.
UPDATE: At the Think Progress mothership, Lee Fang notes that conservatives are repeating this false talking point:
— George Will: “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed or damaged hundreds of drilling rigs without causing a large spill.”
— Wall Street Journal editorial: “Hurricanes Katrina and Rita flattened terminals across the Gulf of Mexico but didn’t cause a single oil spill.”
— Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne: “When Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast where we have about 4,000 oil and gas platforms, 3,000 were in the direct line of the storms – the most significant storms we’ve seen ever – and 3,000 of those had to be shut down. We had no significant oil spill. The system worked.”
— Fox News’ Dick Morris: “And by the way, the safety concerns, Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause any leakage or any spill in the Gulf of Mexico oil wells.”