Our Ocean Is Stressed Enough: Give It a Break from Drilling

To mitigate and increase our resilience to climate change, we need to stop leasing our public waters to oil and gas companies, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and highly and fully protect at least 30 percent of our ocean by 2030.

Oil slicks extend past the booms attempting to prevent the oil spill from contaminating Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach, CA on Monday, October 4.

Credit: NRDC

California is in the middle of a year with record-breaking heat, record-breaking wildfires, and record-breaking drought. On top of these climate change-fueled events, 144,000 gallons of oil spilled in Southern California last weekend—the latest in a string of disasters reminding us that our addiction to fossil fuels has devastating consequences. 


The spill is tarring wildlife and ecosystems, sullying beaches, and threatening human health. Dead birds and fish are washing up onshore, and dolphins were spotted swimming through the oil patch. There’s no estimate of when beaches might reopen, and if the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez spills are any indication, the ecological, economic, and public health damages may last generations. Unsurprisingly, this spill has renewed calls from California residents to end drilling offshore.

This spill comes on top of an already climate-stressed ocean, which absorbs more than 90 percent of heat from climate change and one-quarter of carbon dioxide emissions. The ocean is now the warmest it has been since scientists began measuring, more acidic than at any other time in the past 14 million years, and losing oxygen, fundamental to virtually all marine life. 

Climate stressors in the ocean are displacing species, forcing them to seek out waters more similar in temperature and chemistry to those they adapted to, and putting many shark, ray, and marine mammal species at risk of extinction. For marine ecosystems to have a fighting chance against climate change, the best thing we can do—in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible—is to remove additional stressors like offshore drilling.

One way to do that is to stop issuing new leases. The Biden administration plans to move forward with an offshore lease sale (Lease Sale 257) of over 80 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico, which Interior estimates will result in the production of up to 1.1 billion barrels of oil and 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the next 50 years. The Administration should cancel Lease Sale 257 and the additional three lease sales scheduled in the existing Five-Year Program, and develop a new Five-Year Program with a null lease schedule. 

In addition, we need to expand the amount of ocean that is under protection through the creation of fully and highly protected marine protected areas (MPAs), parks in the ocean where industrial activities are prohibited. We need to highly and fully protect at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030, while strengthening conservation in the remaining portion. This plan, known as 30x30, will bolster the ocean’s resilience to climate change, enhance food security for the billions of people who rely on the ocean for their primary source of protein and income, provide safe havens for marine life, and secure a healthy ocean for all of us to enjoy.

The Biden administration has already established a national goal to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and freshwater and 30 percent of U.S. ocean areas by 2030. Since the ocean does not respect geopolitical boundaries, government signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) should adopt a target to highly and fully protect at least 30 percent of our ocean, lands, and inland waters by 2030 when they meet in Kunming, China next year to finalize the new global biodiversity framework that will set the trajectory of conservation for the next decade and beyond. 

Ending new leasing for offshore oil and gas is crucial both to mitigate climate change as well as help marine ecosystems become more resilient to its effects. We need to protect 30 percent of the ocean and transition away from fossil fuels to better, cleaner technologies.

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