From 4,500 feet above, it looked more like a tiny chess pawn than an object worthy of 10 years of controversy and three years of court battles. But down below on the drilling platform of the nine-story-high offshore oil rig, blue- jean-clad Shell Oil Company executives crowded close to drill operator Wes Campbell's tatooed arm. Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on the brilliant July Friday, Campbell pulled the lever that sank the 17.5-inch carbon steel drill bit over 500 feet to begin boring some three miles into the ocean floor.
Here on George's Bank, one of the world's richest fishing areas 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod, the long-debated search for oil and gas had begun.
Joe Yobe, Shell project manager, hastened to put the drilling in perspective, "It's just another hole in the ground."
But most observers are far less cavalier about the long-fought battle between fish and fuel. What is at stake in the George's Bank area is a multibillion-dollar fishing industry vs. estimates of up to 400 million barrels of oil and 2.5 trillion cubic feet of gas.
Proponents of the drilling contend that nearly 60 percent of all future US oil reserves will flow from outer-continental shelf oil wells. Opponents say that harm to George's Bank -- a 20,000-square-mile sunken plateau that serves as a spawning and feeding ground for hundreds of fish species -- could imperil the entire North Atlantic ecosystem.
So far, 63 tracts of three square miles each have been leased to the oil companies for exploratory drilling on George's Bank. Shell and its consortium of three other oil companies have leased three of those tracts to the tune of $ 86 million. The next lease sale for the area will take place in August 1982.
The exploratory drilling phase is expected to last from six to seven years and cost more than $150 million. This well, Shell's first in the George's Bank, is being dug in Tract 410. Exxon USA and its consortium, 40 miles away on Atlantic Block 133, also began exploratory drilling off their rig, the Alaskan Star, early Friday morning.
Shell officials say the drilling will take approximately 200 days and reach 17,000 feet. Even if the drilling is positive, another well 30 miles west also will be dug and up to five more wells may be needed to determine commercial viability. Oil or gas production would not begin until the late 1980s after another round of oil company proposals and federal permits exchange hands.
What the years of on-again, off-again controversy have generated are the most stringent offshore exploratory drilling regulations ever. "The George's Bank area will be the most strictly regulated in offshore oil history," said Emily Bateson, a Conservation Law Foundation spokeswoman. "We've done everything we can," added Paul Keough of the Environmetal Protection Agency (EPA).
Of greatest concern to environmentalists and fishermen are the possibility of an oil blowout and the buildup of the toxic muds used in the exploratory drilling operation. Environmentalists repeatedly point to the Mexican Gulf of Campeche oil blowout in 1979 that spewed oil uncontrollably into the Gulf of Mexico for nine months.
Shell officials argue that the discovery of shallow gas -- the most common cause of blowouts -- is geologically remote in the George's Bank area. In addition, they say the most likely find will not even be oil, but natural gas. Nevertheless, a blowout preventer -- a two-story, 192-ton block of valves -- will be anchored on the ocean floor ready to cap the drilling hole should the need arise.
The other area of contention, toxic muds, is more controversial. Such muds -- a mixture of sea water, clay, and chemicals -- are forced down the drill pipe at the rate of 500 gallons a minute to lubricate the drill and wash the rock cuttings up to the surface for evaluation. When discarded overboard, the muds are criticized as a probable contaminant of the fragile marine ecosystem. The EPA has set fresh standards for their disposal -- a dilution ratio of 10 parts water to one part mud that Shell terms "excessive." A Biological Task Force Environmental Study Also will be studying the long-term effects of the chemical muds.
Of more immediate concern to fishermen is the possibility of snagging nets and lines on oil company equipment lost or discarded from the drill rigs. As a safeguard, all drilling equipment is to be marked with the oil company's name. In addition, Shell has set up an interim fund of interest-free loans to be paid to the fishermen in the event of a claim. The New England Fisheries Consortium contends that the presents 22-month wait for federal compensation is too slow.
The environmental group Greenpeace, saying that the local fishing industry could be "decimated," sailed to the rig July 25, displaying posters and attaching bumper stickers to the rig protesting the drilling.