Why We Must Stop New Offshore Drilling

Oil and gas development puts our Arctic, Atlantic, and Gulf waters at grave risk. We need to do more to protect them. 

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010. Monica Leftwich/U.S. Coast Guard

There may be nothing more essential to the natural systems we rely on than clean and healthy oceans. And they face no greater or more urgent threat than our production and use of gas and oil.

Offshore drilling puts our workers, waters, and wildlife at risk of blowouts, explosions, and disastrous spills. The burning of oil and gas contributes to the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, warming our oceans, raising sea levels, and threatening our communities and coasts. And much of that carbon pollution settles into our oceans, making our waters more acidic and wreaking havoc on the shellfish, coral reefs, and other marine life worldwide.

We must protect the waters that sustain life on earth.

That starts with ending our reliance on fossil fuels as rapidly as possible—by investing in fuel-efficient homes, workplaces, cars, and trucks; building the next generation of all-electric and hybrid vehicles; and powering them with clean energy from the wind and sun. That’s the formula the United States, China, India, and more than 180 other countries agreed to at global climate talks last December in Paris, and it’s already driving a global clean energy transition that’s fast becoming the economic play of our lifetime.

As we shift away from the dirty fuels of the past to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future, we must also limit the waters that are exposed to the risks of offshore drilling. And we must reduce the risks to those waters that are exposed while we transition to the clean energy economy.

Here’s what it all means, in practice.

First, don’t expose new ocean waters to drilling. We don’t get oil or gas from our Arctic Ocean, and it’s been more than three decades since we tried getting any from the Atlantic. Those waters can and must be permanently protected from the threats of this inherently dangerous industrial activity at sea. President Obama has the authority to take these waters off the table for oil and gas activity permanently, and he should. 

Industry officials tell us if Arctic or Atlantic waters were opened to them today, it would be another 20 to 40 years before those regions started producing oil and gas. But we’re already shifting away from those fuels to prevent catastrophic climate change. Opening up those waters to new drilling would take us in the wrong direction, locking future generations into those fuels and all the hazard and harm they bring. That doesn’t make sense. Let’s protect Atlantic and Arctic waters and all they support—for good.

We’re getting some oil and gas in Pacific waters off our western coast, but it’s been decades since we made new areas available for drilling there. We need to keep it that way. 

Jeff Phillips, Environmental Contaminants Coordinator for the USFWS, rescues an oiled brown pelican from the Barataria Bay in Grand Isle, Louisiana, June 4, 2010. Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Marie Gorden/U.S. Coast Guard

It is also important to hold the line on new areas of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Six years ago, the BP blowout there killed 11 workers and gushed millions of barrels of toxic crude oil into some of the richest marine habitat in the world. This ongoing disaster threw tens of thousands of fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, and others out of work. It made food unsafe to eat and air unsafe to breathe and resulted in widespread health problems for the people of the Gulf, where oil spread out across more than 1,000 miles of coastal lands and marshes. It is still taking a toll on marine life. 

The disaster in the Gulf affirmed that there is no way to take the risk out of what is an inherently dangerous industrial operation at sea.     

Right now, in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil and gas industry has leased from the federal government 24 million acres—an area slightly larger than the state of Indiana—for potential drilling. The industry is getting oil and gas from about one-sixth of that area, leaving more than 19 million acres of existing leases on the table for development.

Enough is more than enough. That’s why we stand in solidarity with voices from the region in saying there should be no new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, and we look to the day when those waters, too, are no longer threatened by these inherently hazardous industrial operations. The Gulf of Mexico is not a national sacrifice zone. It is a national treasure. And it’s time for us to treat it that way.

As our economy shifts to cleaner energy sources, the federal government needs to consult and coordinate closely with Gulf residents on ending the region’s reliance on the fossil fuel industry. The Gulf region has a skilled workforce that has helped power our country for decades. We must not consign that workforce to the sidelines of a clean energy boom. That force is an asset we need to help us improve our efficiency, get more clean power from the wind and sun, and create the transportation options that can better our lives.

The Obama administration and its successors will need to work in direct consultation with front-line communities, listen to them, understand their concerns, and help connect this skilled workforce with the clean energy jobs of the future.

In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to reduce the risk of another offshore drilling catastrophe. 

Gathered concentrated oil burns during a controlled oil fire in the Gulf of Mexico to aid in preventing the spread of oil following the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Petty Officer 2nd Justin Stumberg/U.S. Navy

The administration recently announced stronger safeguards to protect against the risk of an offshore blowout and to help ensure that oil is better contained if an accident does occur. This is an important first step, but more needs to be done to make sure officials have the safeguards to do their job and the tools to enforce stronger protections.  

It’s time to bar oil and gas drilling in waters not already exposed to the hazards of fossil fuel extraction. It’s time to shift away as quickly as we can from dirty fossil fuels that wreak havoc on our climate and threaten our oceans, communities, and coasts. And it’s time to provide the highest possible protection for waters and communities still at risk, until that transition is complete. It is part of NRDC’s mission to make that happen.

About the Authors

Rhea Suh

President

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