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Looking for Oil in All the Wrong Places
Post-Katrina, NRDC fights new attempts to resume drilling off our coasts.

Photo of an oil rigHurricane Katrina unleashed more than seven million barrels of oil into the marshlands of southeastern Louisiana, only a small fraction of which has been contained by cleanup crews. The magnitude of the spill rivals that of the Exxon Valdez, one of the worst ecological disasters in modern history. Many scientists believe Alaska's aquatic life has yet to recover from that 1989 spill. Gulf Coast residents who depend on fisheries and tourism, along with environmentalists, are now worried about the scope of Katrina's fallout.

"The spills were a clear reminder of the risks that come with coastal drilling, especially in areas prone to hurricanes and tropical storms," says Lisa Speer, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an expert on marine environments. "Katrina is a giant warning sign for anyone thinking about offshore oil production."

Not everyone is getting the message. Within weeks after the hurricane, the oil industry and its congressional allies began lobbying for an end to the decades-old ban on new leases for offshore oil exploration in regions they claimed were less vulnerable to hurricanes.

The big losers in all this could be coastal states. These states are home to most of the country's marine fisheries and generate 85 percent of all U.S. revenue from tourism, our largest industry and employer. Each year, Miami Beach alone lures more tourists than Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite combined. Of course both industries rely on clean water.

Offshore oil drilling needlessly threatens the economic security of these coastal areas. Common hazards include pipeline ruptures, tanker spills, and air and water pollution generated during exploration and production. Massive underwater explosions used to search for oil deposits harm marine mammals and fish. And the onshore infrastructure -- processing facilities, storage tanks, transportation hubs -- has a major impact on fragile coastal habitats, as well as on air quality and public health.

The current moratorium on oil and gas leases began in the early 1980s, when Congress declared some coastal areas off-limits. The first President Bush and President Clinton supported the ban, as has the current President Bush. A plan to lift the ban was removed from the 2005 energy bill, but pressure to expand drilling has recently begun to mount.

The latest proposal, which was put forth by Representative Richard Pombo of California, would give states the option to approve leases in federal waters off their coasts in exchange for a share of the revenue generated by those leases. NRDC opposes the proposal, which could open up areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off Florida's fastest-growing coastal zone, as well as shorelines from South Carolina to Maine.

Since 2001, NRDC has been working to halt efforts by the oil industry to extend 37 undeveloped leases off the coast of California. In a suit against the Department of the Interior, NRDC argued that granting the lease extensions would violate the National Environmental Protection Act. Last August, a federal judge in Oakland agreed, ruling that the department ignored the potential impact of exploration on marine mammals.

The story doesn't end there, however: An appeals court will hear the case sometime this year, leaving California's cherished coastline vulnerable to drilling. "This battle will go on for a while," says Speer, who anticipates that Congress will consider more proposals for offshore drilling in 2006.

Inside NRDC
The View from NRDC

California Stays Wild

More than 17,000 acres of Southern California wilderness and ranch land will be permanently protected from development as the result of a legal settlement involving a major real estate developer, local officials, and a coalition of environmental groups led by NRDC and the Endangered Habitats League. The plan by the owners of Rancho Mission Viejo to build 14,000 housing units across 22,000 acres in southern Orange County would have destroyed some of the last pristine open space in the region, home to mountain lions, golden eagles, the endangered arroyo toad, and rare birds including the gnatcatcher and the coastal cactus wren. The settlement sets aside roughly 75 percent of Rancho Mission Viejo, preserving critical wildlife habitat and protecting the San Mateo watershed and local beaches from polluted runoff.

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Photos: oil rig, Minerals Management Service; mountain lion, Photodisc

OnEarth. Winter 2006
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council