Lessons Unlearned: World Oceans Day is here, oil is gushing and more drilling is on the table

Sometimes lessons can be fun, and other times they are excruciating-- especially when we can't seem to learn them. So here we are, celebrating World Oceans Day, and the question is: Will we learn the lesson that we must say NO to big oil and stop risking our oceans, climate and future?

Right now, crews on the California coast are struggling to clean up more than 100,000 gallons of heavy crude oil that has soiled the Santa Barbara coast, state beaches and productive marine ecosystems. And yet it was not a surprise given the company's history and the risk associated with this dirty industry.

And just a few weeks ago we heard from scientists that yes, in fact BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster has directly impacted huge numbers of dolphins.

Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

For the last five years, an unprecedented number of dead and dying dolphins have been found along the coastline of the northern Gulf of Mexico. As of the end of May, the number of these strandings stood at 1,398. (The animals are almost always dead, and are mainly bottlenose dolphins, with a smaller number of other dolphins as well as whale species.) For perspective, the average number of strandings in this region is six per year. The lead scientist on the project told the New York Times, "The evidence to date indicates that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused the adrenal and lung lesions that contributed to the deaths" of the dolphins. This horrific impact is just one of many terrible aftermaths of the BP oil disaster. Other impacts summarized in NRDC's factsheet on the disaster include:

  • The oil spill contaminated over 1,100 miles of coastline, at least 1,200 square miles of the deep ocean floor and 68,000 square miles of surface water. Some 22,000 tons of oil washed up on the shores of the Gulf Coast.
  • Nearly 1 million coastal and offshore seabirds are estimated to have died as a result of the oil spill.
  • The Gulf of Mexico commercial fishing industry lost an estimated $247 million as a result of post-spill fisheries closures.
  • Estimates of lost tourism dollars were projected to cost the Gulf coastal economy up to $22.7 billion through 2013.

We are still just learning the full impacts of this tragedy. It's a safe bet that what we learn will further confirm the extensive economic and environmental impacts that the disaster has had. The fact is that drilling is a dirty and dangerous proposition. It risks serious harm to precious marine life and to coastal economies that rely heavily on healthy fisheries, tourism and an unspoiled way of life. What's more, additional drilling will lock us into decades of carbon pollution, worsening severe climate impacts.

Right now, these lessons are being ignored. Absolutely no federal legislation has been enacted to make drilling any safer today than it was the day that Deepwater Horizon exploded. Instead of fixing that, some Senators are attempting to open up even more areas to drilling -- from the Arctic, to the Atlantic, and back to the Gulf.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has introduced a bill to open more areas in the Arctic to drilling. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) has introduced a bill that opens the Atlantic coast to drilling for the first time since 1983, opening areas from Virginia through Georgia with virtually no limit on how close or risky the drilling can be. And Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) has introduced a bill that opens up large areas of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, bringing drilling up to within 50 miles of the Florida Gulf coast. And all of these bills employ "revenue sharing" which are schemes to have financial kickbacks sent to the states that create perverse incentives for drilling in sensitive offshore areas. Even the Obama Administration is calling for more drilling off our shores. The Administration's draft Five Year OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program has proposed opening up the Atlantic from Virginia to Georgia to drilling for the first time in more than thirty years, in addition to three new Arctic lease sales. But this plan is just in its draft stages and there is still time to get these lease sales stopped, revise that plan and drop those sales. We can tell President Obama to keep the Arctic and Atlantic off of the chopping block.

Some members of Congress have not only learned from past disasters, but are working hard to make sure it doesn't happen again. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has stood up to big oil and for his state, opposing current legislation that threatens Florida coasts and introducing a bill to prevent oil exploration and drilling off Florida shores. And in the House Representatives David Jolly (R-FL) and Gwen Graham (D-FL) introduced a bill that would extend an existing ban on oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico through 2027. Also taking a stand are 10 Atlantic coast Senators and 20 Representatives who are opposing drilling off their shores and who have introduced The Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism (COAST) Anti-Drilling Act in both the House and Senate to prohibit drilling off the Atlantic coast. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) was joined by 17 senators in a letter urging the Administration to protect our last pristine oceans in the Arctic from risky drilling.

These leaders and many communities are coming together to take a stand against dirty drilling. They are saying NO to the prospect of risking their coastal economies, sacrificing their way of life and imperiling valuable marine ecosystems. Today, on World Oceans Day, we can all support those efforts and lend our voice to the growing movement. We can learn and share a valuable lesson about what we'll accept for the future of our oceans.

About the Authors

Alexandra Adams

Senior Advocate, Oceans Program

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