What is Offshore Oil Drilling?

Mary McMahon

Offshore oil drilling is an oil extraction technique which allows oil companies to access deposits of oil buried under the ocean floor. Most typically, offshore drilling sites are situated over the continental shelf, although advancements in drilling technology have made platforms even further out to sea economically and physically feasible. Many people are opposed to offshore oil drilling, due to concerns about its impact on the environment, and the unaesthetic appearance of oil rigs off the coastline.

An offshore oil platform.
An offshore oil platform.

Many sections of the Earth's oceans have massive deposits of oil buried deep beneath their surface, and these oil deposits are extremely appealing to many oil companies. The first offshore oil drilling operation was established in 1938 in the Gulf of Mexico, and other producers quickly started to follow suit in other regions of the world. By the 1970s, many communities had enacted specific bans against offshore drilling, and the issue became a bone of contention in some areas.

Oil booms being used to limit the spread of an oil spill near an offshore oil rig.
Oil booms being used to limit the spread of an oil spill near an offshore oil rig.

There are several ways in which an offshore oil drilling operation can be run, and the type of oil rig used is usually dependent on the depth at the location, the type of oil, and prevailing conditions. Classically, fixed rigs are built into place on the ocean floor, with multiple well heads and adjustable parts to allow engineers to extract oil from the surrounding area. Floating rigs are also used, in some regions, and in some areas offshore oil drilling is conducted on ships for even more mobility.

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Water polluted by oil can cause harm to plants and animals that live in and depend on the water.
Water polluted by oil can cause harm to plants and animals that live in and depend on the water.

Working on an offshore drilling rig can be extremely dangerous. Several accidents have caused rigs to explode, capsize, or become badly damaged, with accompanying loss of life, and many crews today are housed offsite, so that if something happens to the rig, the loss of life will be less severe. Workers on oil rigs still have to contend with severe weather conditions, problems with the rig, and geological conditions which could become dangerous, and they are typically highly paid in recognition of the risks of the industry.

The environmental effects of offshore drilling are primarily caused by pollution related to poorly maintained and operated rigs. Oil spills around rigs are common, especially at the seafloor, where drilling may stimulate seepage, and heavy metal pollution can also occur. Some people also feel that offshore oil drilling disrupts and confuses marine life, although ironically rigs can also provide shelter to seabirds and fish.

Offshore oil rigs can cause oil and heavy metal pollution, especially if poorly maintained.
Offshore oil rigs can cause oil and heavy metal pollution, especially if poorly maintained.

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Discussion Comments


quite appreciated


We need to drill no matter what, plain and simple.


@ Georgesplane - Your post brings up a lot of great points, and surprisingly I can say that I agree with all of them. Where I differ though, is your definition of the hard truth. We have to be willing to hear the entire hard truth. The truth is we will need to examine the American lifestyle to be able to truly solve the energy problem. People will have to consume less, energy consumption will have to become more efficient in every aspect of life, and renewable sources of energy will have to be allowed to develop. Whether we are willing to accept this truth or not, life as we know it will change. Oil will eventually be gone; and the longer we delay the inevitable, the costlier it will be for society.


@ GlassAxe - So what do you propose we do? The hard truth is that oil is a necessary part of everyday life, so oil exploration is a must. It is horrible when accidents happen, but what else can we do? Consumers need to be able to have access to stable sources of energy, and drilling off of our shores can guarantee that our energy resources are secure. I would love to say that there is a quick fix that can make everyone happy, but looking at the energy problem in purely environmental terms is not going to accomplish anything. I respect your opinion, but I think that deep water oil exploration is necessary.


The only reason that offshore drilling is a viable way to get oil is because our proven reserves on land and in shallow water are all but depleted, and the demand for oil has risen considerably in the last decade. Consensus amongst oil experts is that we have reached the oil horizon, or will reach it within a decade or so. Because of this the compounding effects of increased demand and reduced supply are starting to be felt. Exploration is riskier, and disasters are worse than ever.

I would say that offshore drilling is anything but safe (As evidenced in the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster off of the Louisiana coast). The petroleum sector, and the rest of the energy industry in general, lags behind almost all other industries in research and development of new technologies. The same inadequate techniques used in oil exploration safety today have been around for decades, while techniques for extracting oil have been progressing in leaps and bounds. This type of industry practice would be the same as Ferrari designing a 200 mph super car, but using the brakes from a family sedan so as to cut costs. It’s utterly unethical and unacceptable.

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