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Federal records show steady stream of oil spills in gulf since 1964

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has surpassed the size of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill and the Exxon Valdez. Here are some other historical spills.

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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

The oil and gas industry's offshore safety and environmental record in the Gulf of Mexico has become a key point of debate over future drilling, but that record has been far worse than is commonly portrayed by many industry leaders and lawmakers.

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Many policymakers think that the record before the BP oil spill was exemplary. In a House hearing Thursday, Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) said, "It's almost an astonishingly safe, clean history that we have there in the gulf." Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the industry's "history of safety over all of those times" had provided the "empirical foundation" for U.S. policy.

But federal records tell a different story. They show a steady stream of oil spills dumping 517,847 barrels of petroleum -- which would fill an equivalent number of standard American bathtubs -- into the Gulf of Mexico between 1964 and 2009. The spills killed thousands of birds and soiled beaches as far away as Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Altogether, they poured twice as much as oil into U.S. waters as the Exxon Valdez tanker did when it ran aground in 1989.

The industry's record had been improving before the BP spill. In 2009, the largest one was about 1,500 barrels, about what BP's damaged well was leaking every hour before it was capped last week. But at least a handful of spills take place annually as a result of blowouts, hurricanes, lax pipeline maintenance, tanker leaks and human error, according to figures kept by the Minerals Management Service, now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Moreover, in at least one key instance, the official statistics understate the actual quantities of oil that have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. MMS statistics say that a 1970 blowout on a Shell Oil well that killed four people triggered a spill of 53,000 barrels. But Robert Bea, a University of California, Berkeley professor who at that time worked for Shell tracking the oil spill, says that the spill was 10 times that size and contaminated shorelines on the Yucatan Peninsula as well as the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"I see the numbers, and I shrug my shoulders," said Bea, who contributed to a report issued last week on the April 20 Deepwater Horizon accident. The 1970 Shell blowout happened on a production platform, he notes. "We knew what the production rates were," he said.

Today regulators rely heavily on company estimates, although some environmentalists fear that the spill size might be underestimated.

The industry's track record is a crucial issue. On March 31, President Obama cited advances in offshore drilling technology as a key reason for his willingness to open up new offshore areas to exploration and production.

Now, the oil and gas industry is trying to use its earlier record to persuade Obama to lift a temporary moratorium and to convince the public that companies can continue offshore drilling without a similar incident.

"The oil industry has drilled 42,000 wells in the Gulf of Mexico, and this is the first time an incident of this magnitude has happened," said the American Petroleum Institute's president, Jack Gerard, who has been urging Congress to avoid imposing tough new regulations.

The BP oil spill is the biggest ever, but MMS records tell a more complicated story. Performance had been improving but from a poor baseline.


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