By Ryan Gobar
East Asia and the Northwestern Pacific are home to some of the world’s biggest and most productive fisheries, with average yearly yields in the 20-24 million ton range (Ahlenius 2004). The region is home to many coral reefs and these fisheries provide food for a large percentage of the world’s population. The coral reefs are also some of the most important ecological sites in the world, home to thousands of marine species. These biologically diverse marine habitats these reefs continue to add ecological and economical value to the waters off of Eastern Asia through tourism, recreation, and extractable resources.
Offshore energy exploration allows nations to access additional fuel reserves and expand domestic industry, but there are many costs to consider. While large tracts of natural gas and oil occur in the seabed off the coast of East Asia in the Pacific Ocean they vary in degrees of difficulty and the resources needed to locate and extract these fuels. The process can be very lucrative and offshore drilling rigs are a common sight for many residents of coastal areas across the globe, but the hunt for these resources can be highly detrimental to the local ecosystems and other natural economic assets such as fisheries and tourist attractions.
Types of offshore energy extraction include drilling for oil and hydraulic fracking, both of which have large impacts on the environment in which they are done. For example, seismic mapping, the initial assessment and surveying for potential oil deposits, consists of blasting high decibel waves along the seafloor to map deposits and their sizes (CAOE 2010). The noise caused by the waves can injure and impair many different species of fish and marine wildlife. These disruptions, especially in a highly productive environment, could potentially damage populations to the point of impacting fisherman’s daily catches, bringing down local economies and making it more difficult for fishermen to provide for their families.
In addition, drilling also releases many toxic chemicals into the area, similar to the acidic heavy metal runoff created when mining on land. When used in close proximity to valuable ecological assets this concentration of chemicals can harm the reproductive cycles of fish and further exacerbate issues such as ocean acidification, a major factor in the decline in coral reefs (Boesch & Rabalais 2003).
Perhaps the greatest and most publicized impacts of offshore energy exploration are oil spills. Highly detrimental to the environment, a large-scale oil spill like the Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico can cause adverse effects decades into the future. While extensive risk assessment and planning are required before drilling commences, accidents resulting in spills still occur, often due to poor regulation, oversight, or maintenance (Boesch & Rabalais 2003).
Another challenge that comes with oil spills is the clean up. In a region such as East Asia where many countries have access to the coast, a large-scale oil spill could create issues in determining the responsibility of clean up, and getting countries to act in conjunction to address a multinational problem. This would be further hindered by the large degree of territorial disputes among East Asian nations in terms of rightful ownership of areas with oil and natural gas reserves. Many lay claim to the ownership and rights to harvest these resources, but would each country defend their responsibility for a spill, or would a blame-game erupt and further destabilize the region?
When contemplating the benefits of offshore energy acquisition one must assess the amount of oil discovered and accurately predict how much of that reserve will be economically feasible to extract. Oil fields are not completely drained by a rig. Much of the field is typically too deep or under rock that takes too much cost/effort to recover, and the reported values for sites are often inflated (CAOE 2010). If a five billion barrel deposit is discovered but only two billion barrels are feasible to withdraw, a cost-benefit analysis must be done to see if the economic gain of drilling would outweigh the cost of setting up the site, combined with costs of damages done to the ecosystem. A large debate over the benefits of deep sea drilling versus detrimental effects to the environment has been sparked in many countries. Worldwide opposition to drilling has manifested in several forms including political figures and activism groups.
A major risk of offshore energy acquisition is the potential to disrupt or reduce the productivity of natural fisheries. As a multi-billion dollar a year industry, the Northwest Pacific’s fisheries are constantly at risk from complications induced by offshore energy exploration (Ahlenius 2004). The extraction of fuel resources largely benefits a few multinational corporations, while the negative environmental consequences of extraction are generally felt locally. Conversely, the livelihood of many fishermen depends upon the continued health of local ecosystems and the fish populations that depend on them. A reduction in fish stocks due to an oil spill could not only result in financial hardship for fishermen, but also expose the region to food shortages and increased prices at the market, having widespread socioeconomic impacts.
While there are many anthropogenic factors impacting the ocean and coastal environments, offshore energy exploration has the potential to be one of the most detrimental. The search and extraction of resources not only has an effect on the aquatic ecosystems, it also includes the infrastructure and habitat destruction that occurs on land where the drilling company deposits and refines collected crude oil.
Waste-heat and other sources of pollution emitted by these onshore facilities can harm local wetlands, a factor that has been found to be decreasing mangrove populations in Eastern Asia (Haeruman 1988). Mangroves are vital to a coastal ecosystem for a variety of reasons – not only are they a buffer for storms making land fall but they also filter and purify water, provide habitats for many species of young fish, and can act as a sustainable source of wood.
With the potential to put billions of dollars of fishery income at risk as well as the health of aquatic environments across the Northwestern Pacific and Eastern Asia, deep sea drilling may not continue to pass a cost-benefit analyses. Paired with ever-dwindling reserves and organized opposition that is gaining strength, deep water drilling will become increasingly more costly and difficult.
In a future where citizens are more aware and environmentally conscious; and renewable energies have begun to become more widespread, perhaps deep sea drilling can be eliminated in the near future. With greater bilateral support for biodiversity conservation and a push for energy innovation, our waters can be made safer through the eradication of using hydrocarbons as fuel and making the switch to sustainable, non-polluting energy sources.
Ahlenius, H. (n.d.). World fisheries hotspots, 2004 | GRID-Arendal – Maps & Graphics library. GRID-Arendal – Home. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from http://www.grida.no/graphicslib/detail/world-fisheries-hotspots-2004_1537
Boesch, D., & Rabalais, N. (2003, October 4). Long-term Environmental Effects of Offshore Oil and Gas Development – Google Books. Google Books. Retrieved March 23, 2013, from http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=0S7vDujiSDIC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=environmental+effects+of+offshore+drilling&ots=06Oh7BVZFg&sig=yN4LRSnc2xKHTT06FkPR3h5U10E#v=onepage&q&f=true
Haeruman, H. (1988). Conservation in Indonesia. Ambio. Vol. 17, No. 3, East Asian Seas, pp. 218-222. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from www.jstor.org.libproxy.usc.edu/stable/4313457?seq=1
No Offshore Oil Drilling: Committee Against Oil Exploration (CAOE). (2010, April 3). Culture Change. Retrieved March 23, 2013, from http://www.culturechange.org/cms/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=637&Itemid=1
Foundation. (n.d.). Not the Answer. surfrider.org. Retrieved March 24, 2013, from capefear.surfrider.org//Offshore_Drilling_fact_sheet.pdf
About the Author: Ryan Gobar is a junior in the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He hails from San Rafael in Marin County, California and is also a scientific and recreational diver.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences through the Environmental Studies Program. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, Lecturer Kristen Weiss, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.