New Drilling Plan Puts Jersey Shore to Miami Beach and Wild Arctic at Risk

The Obama administration just released its draft proposal for a five-year offshore oil and gas drilling plan. The plan would open, for the first time since 1983, the southeast Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Georgia to offshore oil and gas drilling. It would also allow drilling in the vast majority of the wild Arctic.

The administration also took an important first step toward protecting some important marine ecosystems in the Arctic, and sites vital for the traditions of Alaska Native communities. Recognizing the special value of such sites is important. But oil spills travel thousands of miles--as we saw with the Deepwater Horizon disaster--regardless of what lines we have drawn. The southeast Atlantic and the entire Arctic must not be open to drilling and exposed to those risks.

This is a five-year plan that will have far more enduring consequences for coastal communities and for the nation. A plan that risks polluting the pristine Arctic and the densely populated Atlantic coast, while locking in new sources of carbon pollution, is the wrong energy policy for America.

The Department of Interior's plan would risk exposing communities and economies from the Jersey Shore to Hilton Head, from Miami Beach to the Chesapeake Bay, to the kind of disaster we saw five years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, with potentially devastating impacts on the environment, beachfront tourism, jobs, and the $80 billion ocean economy of the East Coast.

The Gulf has still not recovered from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which killed 11 people, threw thousands out of work, and dumped more than 130 million gallons of toxic crude oil into some of the richest, most productive waters on Earth. The spilled oil spread over more than 1,000 miles of coastline--roughly the distance from Savannah to Boston. A spill off Virginia could spread to the Jersey Shore.

These impacts last long after the cleanup crews leave. When I worked on oil spill litigation in New York Harbor in the 1990s, I remember that even a few years after a spill, mudflats would still ooze an oily sheen when I stuck an oar into the mud.

In the Arctic, the government's own analysis shows that if leasing goes forward, a major spill is likely. Ocean currents and winds will expose polar bears, walrus, millions of seabirds, and the entire fragile Arctic coastline to the kind of devastation caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster, from which southern Alaska has still not recovered, 25 years later.

In just the past couple of years, we've seen that oil companies are no match for this wild ocean. When Shell tested its Arctic oil spill containment dome, witnesses reported it was "crushed like a beer can." Within months of launching exploratory drilling in 2012, workers had to flee a 30-mile long iceberg, grounded a rig on the rocks, and nearly lost another that slipped anchor in a storm.

I was in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill. There, in the heart of the industry, with thousands of boats and aircraft available for support, it took an agonizing three months to cap the blowout. Imagine the logistics of staging a similar effort in the remote Arctic, with few landing strips or ports, 20-foot waves, gale-force winds, pack ice, and cleanup equipment 2,000 miles away in Seattle. There is no proven technology or emergency response plan that can contain an oil spill in the Arctic and prevent it from spreading to protected areas.

A more responsible plan would reflect at least these key considerations:

  • All Atlantic and Arctic waters need to be taken off the table. Opening more of our valuable coasts to the threat of oil spills is a senseless risk. Drilling in the Atlantic risks polluting beaches up and down the East Coast. Arctic drilling could easily destroy the world's last pristine ocean.
  • Offshore drilling policy needs to reflect our obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of climate change. Coastal communities are already being hit hard by more frequent and severe hurricanes, rising sea levels, and other climate impacts driven by carbon pollution. Opening carbon reserves that are now safely underground will lock in decades of carbon pollution, as oil companies seek to recoup the massive investment needed to access these new reserves.
  • Drilling safeguards need to be strengthened to reduce risks in areas already affected by drilling. Congress has not enacted a single one of the common-sense safety reforms called for after the 2010 BP disaster, such as strong whistleblower protections or more independent safety oversight.
  • Offshore drilling plans need to recognize the growing benefits of clean energy and efficiency. Federal mileage standards for cars and light trucks are expected to save 12 billion barrels of oil over the life of the vehicles, while new and existing clean fuels and energy efficiency policies have the potential to save nearly 4 billion barrels of oil each year by 2035. That's almost the same amount of oil, in a single year, as the Interior Department estimates can ever be recovered from drilling all our offshore waters from Florida to Maine.

The Department of the Interior is accepting public comments on the draft over the next 60 days. This is the time for everyone who cares about the health of our oceans, our coastal communities and all they support to insist that we take the Atlantic and Arctic waters off the table to oil and gas development and protect these irreplaceable resources for future generations.

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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