NRDC Calls for a Time-Out on New Offshore Drilling Activities

The Unfolding Story

Offshore oil drilling is dangerous work, as the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us.  Our hearts go out to the families of the victims who were lost in the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig.

Unfortunately, this horror story grows more and more tragic every day.  As more than 200,000 gallons of oil per day spew into the ocean, an environmental disaster is unfolding before our eyes.  The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries estimates at least 400 species could be impacted by the oil spill, including a dozen, like the sperm whale, West Indian manatee, and Brown Pelican, that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.  The oil spill is expected to make landfall by this weekend.

Those who make their living from the Gulf’s living resources are waiting and worried.  Louisiana's fishing industry is the second largest in America, producing 20% to 25% of the total domestic seafood in the lower 48 states. About a third of the nation's oysters come from Louisiana's waters and the state is also a major producer of shrimp. Florida, whose coastline is also at risk from this spill, depends heavily on tourism and recreation.  In 2008, visitors spent $65.2 billion in Florida and Florida collected $3.9 billion in tourism-related sales taxes. The state’s tourism industry depends in large measure on clean water, clean beaches and abundant fish and wildlife. These are threatened when an oil spill of this magnitude occurs.

How This Tragedy Should Inform Policy

This disaster will be all the more tragic if we fail to learn from it.  Already, several lessons are evident:

  • We cannot assume that technological advances have somehow removed the risk of off-shore oil drilling.  This is evidenced not only by this most recent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, but by a blowout off Australia’s coast last summer, also from an allegedly “state of the art” offshore oil facility, that spewed oil for 10 weeks, spreading an oil slick over 20,000 square miles. This makes clear that it is especially important to ensure fragile ecosystems are not put at risk from oil drilling.  Evaluations of whether important ecosystems could be harmed cannot be based on the premise that oil spills are unlikely.
  • Exploratory drilling poses risks.  The rig that exploded off the coast of Louisiana was drilling an exploratory well, not one intended for continuing production.  Exploratory drilling should not be subject to a lower level of scrutiny than other oil development activities. An oil spill is equally as damaging if it comes from an exploratory well.
  • Clean-up technology poses its own risks and needs further development.  The current state of clean-up technology hardly offers a reason to be less concerned about oil spills.  Planned burns like the one government officials are now testing release particulates and other dangerous pollutants into the air.  The efficacy and environmental impacts of another technique also being tried –chemical dispersants—are not well-understood, according to a 2005 National Research Council report.

Last month, the Obama Administration announced its intent to open up new regions to offshore drilling, including federal waters along the east coast of the U.S. from Delaware to Florida, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska. During his speech, President Obama assured the nation that new offshore oil and gas development would be done “in ways that protect communities and coastlines.”

It is now clear that we still do not know how to adequately protect communities and coastlines from the worst impacts of offshore drilling accidents.  From faulty technology and basic human error, to insufficient and potentially harmful clean-up techniques, there is now proof positive that we need to pause and ask ourselves what it really takes to safely drill off of our coasts.    

Such a pause is standard operating procedure.  After the terrible 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, NASA grounded its shuttle fleet for over 2 years, and established a special commission to investigate the accident and offer key recommendations to be implemented before shuttle flights resumed.

We believe that, in light of this recent tragedy, there should be a time-out on any action to proceed with new offshore drilling until there has been a full and independent investigation of the causes of this blowout, an assessment of whether and how such accidents can be avoided in the future, and a full understanding of the environmental risks of drilling to sensitive and ecologically important areas in these regions as well as the economic impacts to ocean and coastal communities.

The Administration and, for its part, Congress, must take into account the huge safety and environmental issues that has been exposed as a result of the massive oil spill in the Gulf.  We call on the Administration to suspend plans to open up new areas to offshore drilling until we truly understand how to do environmentally and socially responsible offshore drilling. 

This nation also needs comprehensive climate and clean energy policy that invests in energy efficiency and renewable power, including clean renewable energy available off our coasts.  Passing strong climate legislation that caps carbon pollution will also create a new opportunity to economically recover stranded oil in fields that have already been drilled through a technique called CO2-enhanced oil recovery.  This technique avoids the risks that are inherent in offshore drilling activities.