Salazar Protects Some Waters from Drilling, But Leaves Others Vulnerable

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced important provisions that will protect ocean waters and parts of the Gulf of Mexico from the hazards of offshore drilling.

These measures put areas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Eastern Gulf off limits to drilling. They create a no blow-out zone that safeguards these waters and the millions of Americans who depend upon them from the kind of catastrophic spill still poisoning the Gulf seven months after the BP disaster.

This was the right thing to do. But the Obama Administration did not go far enough.

Salazar’s plan leaves the door open to exploratory drilling, and, possibly additional lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas starting in 2012. This could have devastating consequences.

An oil spill in the fragile Arctic could be even more disastrous than in the Gulf. Cold temperatures make it almost impossible for oil to disperse and broken ice would make it difficult to clean up. If the BP blow out in the heavily trafficked Gulf was hard to contain, imagine the challenge of rounding up rescue ships, getting trained workers, and transporting boom to one of the most remote and forbidding places on Earth.

Until we know how to protect this region from the risk of a blow-out and how to clean up oil spills in Arctic waters, these areas, too, need to be off-limits to drilling.

The Obama Administration also left open the prospect of seismic testing in the Atlantic. Not only is such activity a general precursor to future drilling, but the tests themselves typically rely on high-intensity sound likened to undersea warfare. It harms endangered whales and fish on a vast scale. New seismic testing ––anywhere – should use less-harmful technology and it should not be allowed at all in areas like the Atlantic.

As I explain in my book, In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and How to End our Oil Addiction, America’s ocean resources are simply too vital to our economy to risk future oil spills. A 2006 report found that the U.S. seafood and recreational industries generated more than $130 billion in annual sales and supported more than 2 million jobs.

These jobs rely on clean water and healthy fish--not oil slicks. Large portions of Gulf waters had to be closed to fishing in the wake of the BP blow out, and even though many are open now, some have been closed again and the spill continues to cast a long shadow on the Gulf seafood industry.

Many fishermen are still struggling, like Louisiana shrimpers Darla and Todd Rooks, who describe the impact of the BP disaster on their fishing community in the latest installment in a partnership between StoryCorps, NRDC, and Bridge the Gulf: “Living with the BP oil disaster.”

America should not put families like these at risk for offshore drilling that the Department of Energy says won't make much difference in our oil and gas supplies for at least another 20 years. 

We have much safer options at hand. The new clean car standards President Obama announced in May 2009 will not only save drivers money, but will also save 1.8 billion barrels of oil. That is the equivalent of taking 58 million cars off the road for a year. New efficiency standards are only the first small step; technological innovations are allowing us to go much further to reduce our oil use.

And these are the kinds of solutions that will protect our ocean waters and oceans economy.