Offshore drilling announcement is promising, but still raises yellow flags

I was reminded yesterday that there's a new administration in Washington.  Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made some positive announcements about the future of offshore drilling in America - though it's important to note we aren't out of the woods just yet.

Secretary Salazar announced he is going to thoroughly review the new five-year OCS oil and gas leasing plan that the Bush administration initiated development of in its last business day in office. These midnight regulations proposed opening up areas along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts that had been protected from drilling for decades.

Salazar's announcement indicates a stronger commitment to sound science, public input and America's clean energy future than we have seen in the past eight years. And he hit on a couple of themes NRDC has been fighting for when it comes to oil and gas drilling in the OCS:

  • We need better scientific data and understanding when it comes to the resources available in the OCS and the impacts of accessing them.
  • The public must have a greater say in what we do in the OCS.
  • We need a regulatory framework for developing offshore renewable energy - such as wind, tidal and wave power - so we can incorporate their significant potential in the nation's offshore energy strategy while protecting the ocean environment. As Secretary Salazar said: "The Bush Administration was so intent on opening new areas for oil and gas offshore that it torpedoed offshore renewable energy efforts."

However, yesterday's announcement does not stop drilling in the OCS.

There are still leases that will go forward in Alaska and Virginia and we could still see drilling there. As Secretary Salazar moves through his review process, he should put all offshore drilling on hold in Alaska and Virginia - as he did in the areas along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts that Bush opened up in the midnight reg - so that these parts of the country get the same careful reviews, precautions and protections as Salazar says he will provide the other areas.

And while the shift toward offshore renewable energy bodes well for the direction the new administration is headed, it will also be important moving forward to involve agencies that deal with our oceans' living resources (like NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to make sure that any plans for offshore renewable, oil and gas projects are done in a way that minimizes their impact on our oceans.

Offshore oil and gas drilling could cause permanent damage to our beaches and coastal economies - threatening serious impacts to our $32 billion commercial fishing and $60 billion tourism and recreation industries. Tourism alone supports more than 3.5 million jobs in the coastal U.S. states - and the number of jobs in states with new drilling would pale in comparison to those that rely on oil-free beaches. Not to mention, new drilling risks oil spills from Florida to Maine, and all along the Pacific Coast. This could not only cause tremendous damage to fishing and tourism industries, but destroys habitat for plants and animals, and hurts all of us who live, work and vacation in these places. We all remember the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill. If that occurred on the East Coast, it would have extended from Massachusetts to North Carolina. No one wants that.

There will be more action on OCS today as the House Natural Resources Committee kicks off a series of hearings on the impacts of offshore drilling - with testimony from the likes of ocean advocates Phillipe Cousteau and Ted Danson - as we continue the conversation about the future of energy development off our coasts.

We won't know the full impact of Secretary Salazar's announcement until the scientific and environmental reviews he is calling for are given the chance to play out. But we hope the outcome is a greater - and environmentally responsible - investment in developing offshore renewable energy, and an end to oil and gas drilling offshore.