Latest figures from the United States government currently estimate that there are at least 60 billion barrels of oil beneath the ocean floor in the Gulf of Mexico. This amount of oil would keep the US economy buoyant for the next 10 years. The obvious question though, what happens up to and after this next ten year period? Do we carry on as we always have and drill even more areas and to greater depths, or do we learn from our current experience?

The risk of drilling as reserves become scarce means greater risks and thus potentially the chance of further disasters. This year alone we have already witnessed 3 oil spills; Great Barrier Reef, Port Arthur, and the Deepwater Horizon platform explosion which sank off the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th killing 11 crew members.

Over 210?000 gallons of oil are escaping in to the gulf on a daily basis (many scientists are actually predicting significantly more than this); attempts to stem and cut off the leak have ended in failure with BP coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism as to their part in this disaster.

Deepwater Horizon is shaping up to take the dubious honour of being the worst oil spill of our times and we can only imagine the catastrophic effect this amount of oil escaping in to our natural ecosystems will have over time. Is the risk worth it ultimately?

Let's take a second just to think about just some of the lengths we are now going to in finding natural oil reserves. You'll have heard that the Deepwater Horizon rig is working at depths of 1500 metres, to put this in to some perspective official US Navy submarines are crushed like you were screwing-up a piece of paper at only 900 metres. With such complexity you would think appropriate vetting and safety procedures are in place to cover any eventualities.

In 2000 The US Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) conducted a special report that identified dangers inherent in the offshore deep sea drilling industry, and that we had many lessons to learn about its safety and its ultimate viability.

Despite this report and others subsequently, MMS granted numerous waivers for hundreds of deep sea drilling projects off the Gulf of Mexico quoting “categorical exclusion” from all environmental reviews under the US National Environmental Policy Act. They basically were saying if any problems did occur then fall-out in the local environment would be negligible. This quite obviously has not been the case; we are still living with the problems created by the Exon Valdez spill over 20 years ago, where 10.8 million gallons were spilled.

I hope this disaster initiates a change in how we view and manage risk in deep sea drilling. All parties must embrace the importance of their role in ensuring safe and environmentally aware explorations, or who knows what the costs will be.

Read full text on ScienceDirect

DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(10)70091-2