Could a BP-style mega-spill happen closer to Texas shores, threatening the state's fisheries and beaches? Of course.
In fact, smaller spills happen all the time. Last year, 539 spills dumped more than 87,000 gallons of oil into state waterways, according to the General Land Office. That’s far less than the 200,000 gallons a day now spurting from BP's well in the Gulf, but it’s enough to coat the occasional bird or beach.
Texas officials say that the amount of oil spilled has fallen dramatically in the past few decades. And they insist that Texas is better prepared than other states — without mentioning any names — to deal with spills. That’s because Texas reformed its process for dealing with spills two decades ago, after a few scares.
In 1991, the Texas legislature passed the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act. This law essentially handed control of oil spill management in Texas waters to the GLO, which now has an oil spill division, with 56 employees, financed by a fee on each barrel of oil shipped in and out of Texas ports. Companies must report spills to the GLO within an hour of their occurrence, but the agency also patrols Texas waters like Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel. Workers investigate each reported spill — and sometimes catch unreported ones.
"There is a deterrent purpose to all of those patrols that we do," says Greg Pollock, who directs the GLO's oil spill division.
Texas officials have been planning for such disasters for two decades. Before 1991, Pollock added, no single agency took charge of spill management and coordination with the Coast Guard. "Agencies were just kind of flailing around out there," he says.
The 1991 law was passed in the wake of two enormous oil spills. The first was the so-called Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, the largest in U.S. history, in which a tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, devastating the region's wildlife and ecology.
A year later, Texas suffered its worst close-in spill ever. In June 1990, a Norwegian tanker called the Mega Borg was 57 miles off of Galveston's coast when it experienced a pump-room fire and spilled roughly 5 million gallons of oil. (The tanker had been in the process of transferring some cargo to another ship.) Although the shoreline suffered little impact and much of the oil burned, it was a "very scary event," Pollock says.
Of course, Texas had already endured a much worse spill more than a decade earlier. In June 1979, 600 miles off the Texas coast, some 140 million gallons were spilled after a drilling rig blowout two miles beneath the water's surface. The rig had been leased to Pemex, Mexico's national oil company. The gushing well was not capped until nine months later; meanwhile, South Padre Island's beaches got coated with oil.
The 1991 Texas law was designed to respond quickly to such events — and better still, to prevent them.
"The lesson from the Valdez," says Garry Mauro, who was the Texas Land Commissioner from 1983 to 1999, was that "you've got to have pre-positioned equipment and pre-positioned personnel." The GLO now has five offices with boats and booms at the ready: in Corpus Christi, Port Lavaca, Nederland, Brownsville and La Porte. All ships using Texas ports are also required to have an oil-spill response plan, according to Jerry Patterson, the current land commissioner.
Texas also had information for marine salvage companies and other first responders at the ready. If there's a spill, "we don't go, 'Oh, heck, something spilled. Let's get the Yellow Pages,'" Patterson says.
The drop in the amount of oil spilled in recent decades — which Texas officials cannot fully quantify, because no single agency tallied up the spills way back when — is due to a combination of factors. These include the 1991 Texas law, but also the federal Oil Pollution Act, which was passed in 1990 in response to the Exxon Valdez spill. It raised fines on the oil industry and required industry and government to plan more carefully for spills.
"It's just a hell of a lot better now," Pollock says.
Many of today's spills, according to GLO, are less than a barrel (42 gallons) each and sometimes less than a gallon. Nearly all of them occur during transit — for example, when cargo is loaded or unloaded. The worst spill in the last five years was a 2006 incident in which 142,700 gallons spilled into the Corpus Christi Ship Channel from a containment berm at a Valero refinery.
A far larger amount seeps naturally from the oil beds deep in the Gulf — just as, in the pre-Spindletop days, oil would occasionally amaze Texans by bubbling through the surface of the land. Greg McCormack of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas says that perhaps up to 1 million barrels of oil a year — or 42 million gallons — seep up from the beds into the Gulf each year.
"The Gulf of Mexico manages to handle all of that," he said. The nearly 90,000 gallons spilled last year, he noted, is small by comparison.
Technically, the state has jurisdiction up to 10.3 miles off its shores (this is more than other states, which oversee only 3.5 miles, due to conditions Sam Houston insisted on when Texas joined the union). But had a BP-type spill occurred 50 miles off of Texas' shores, "we would be as involved as if it were a mile off the coast," Pollock says, adding that the Coast Guard would want Texas officials leading in such an effort. "We maintain an incredibly close relationship with the Coasties."
Other states have varying degrees of response capabilities. "California has a very aggressive coastal spill response program; the state of Washington has one," Pollock says. Louisiana's set-up is different, however: While it has an oil spill coordination office, "it is just that," Pollock says: It coordinates responses among agencies but — unlike Texas' — does not take on some of the work itself.
The Texas Railroad Commission also regulates offshore drilling by setting environmental and safety rules for rigs in state waters (the federal Minerals Management Service handles such regulations for rigs further than 10.3 miles out). The Railroad Commission has requirements for blowout preventers and other measures to control wells, but spokeswoman Ramona Nye says conditions in state waters are much easier to handle than those in the BP blowout. The waters are shallow, and the technology is different. Rigs in state waters are set in depths no greater than 150 feet, as opposed to 5,000 feet for the BP rig, Nye says.
Texas environmentalists, for their part, want to move away from offshore drilling. Although the BP spill is not expected to spread into Texas waters, the GLO says Texas beaches could see tar balls washing ashore. Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, an advocacy group, recalls that "basketball-sized tar balls" — which sea turtles can mistake for food and choke on — washed up on Padre Island last year. The recent disaster, Metzger says, serves as a reminder that "offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous."