Senate Energy Bill Paves Way for More Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

Most people probably prefer the beaches where they live or love to visit free of oil spills and drilling rigs. But if some U.S. Senators get their way, Congress will pass legislation undermining longstanding protections for America's coasts.

As the Senate begins floor debate on its energy bill, it is expected that Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Lamar Alexander (R-TN) or George Allen (R-VA) will offer one or more amendments to undermine bipartisan coastal protections first put in place by Congress 24 years ago. These protections -- endorsed by Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush -- safeguard offshore areas from New England to Florida and from Washington to California.

One of the expected amendments would entice states to "opt out" of the congressional offshore leasing moratorium by diverting revenues from the federal treasury to coastal states that decide to open their shores to energy development -- essentially bribing coastal states to accept more offshore oil and gas drilling. As a result, more federal dollars would go to coastal states that opt for drilling -- leaving less money for states with protected beaches or no beaches at all.

"Drilling everywhere, even our special places and shores, won't make a dent in our energy needs. While more offshore drilling would be a cash cow for oil and gas companies, it will ultimately mean fewer federal funds for education, health care and other services," said Lisa Speer, an oceans expert with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "Instead of putting our beaches at risk, harming marine life and threatening coastal economies, Congress should invest in energy solutions that would end our dependence on oil and lower gas prices."

Seismic Exploration Highly Explosive

Language already in the Senate bill would allow damaging high-intensity seismic exploration within sensitive coastal waters that are currently off-limits to energy development. To counter this effort, Senators from Florida and New Jersey -- Sens. Mel Martinez (R-FL), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) -- may offer a bipartisan amendment to strike the so-called OCS inventory from the energy bill. Sen. Nelson has even threatened to filibuster the bill if anti-coastal provisions are not removed.

Concern for the coasts is well founded. After all, conducting an energy "inventory" is not a simple or benign paper exercise. Seismic surveys would require the use of air guns, which use explosive blasts to map rock formations on the sea floor. Sound from these underwater blasts can be detected for thousands of miles. The hundreds of millions of blasts that would be required to survey the OCS would harm marine life.

NRDC's marine mammal expert, Michael Jasny, ranks the sound intensity of seismic exploration as second only to bombs detonating. "Imagine if Congress called for exploding hundreds of millions of artillery shells in the waters off our coasts," Jasny says, "because that is very close to what this bill does." His concerns are echoed by Dr. Chris Clark, director of Cornell University's Bioacoustics Research Program, who has called seismic testing "the most severe acoustic insult to the marine environment…short of naval warfare."

Seismic Harm To Ocean Wildlife

Recent studies indicate that seismic activities related to oil and gas exploration can damage the sensory organs of ocean wildlife. Since most marine mammals and fish use hearing to navigate, detect predators, find prey and communicate, seismic testing can have profound -- even fatal -- effects.

The latest science shows, for example, that catch rates of cod and haddock declined dramatically (between 45 and 70 percent) in an area of more than 1,400 square miles due to the use of seismic air guns. Whales and other marine mammals are particularly at risk from seismic blasts. For instance, a recent seismic survey in the Sea of Cortez was followed by the stranding of beaked whales, and seismic testing is the suspected cause of several humpback whale strandings off the cost of Brazil. Off the U.S. coast, air gun blasts have been observed to affect the feeding behavior of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico, the migration of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea near Alaska, and the behavior of harbor porpoises miles away from the area of seismic testing.

Last year, the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee -- composed of the world's preeminent marine scientists -- concluded that increased sound from seismic surveys was "cause for serious concern." (Source: IWC Report of the Scientific Committee, July 2004)

S.O.S. For America's Coasts

The Senate energy bill is a direct threat to our country's most important environmental and economic resources -- our coasts. As the debate moves forward, it is important to understand the potential devastating impacts associated with oil and gas drilling:

  • Onshore damage: The onshore infrastructure associated with offshore drilling, including industrial facilities and transportation networks, causes significant harm to the fragile coastal zone.

  • Oil spills: Some 3 million gallons of oil have spilled from offshore oil and gas operations in 73 incidents between 1980 and 1999, according to the Interior Department.
  • Water pollution: Massive amounts of waste muds and cuttings, as well as "produced water," are generated by drilling operations. Most of this pollution is dumped, untreated, into surrounding waters.
  • Air pollution: Drilling an average exploration well--oil or gas--pollutes the air with some 50 tons of nitrogen oxides, 13 tons of carbon monoxide, 6 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 5 tons of volatile organic hydrocarbons.

Rather than drill our coasts -- doing nothing to solve our energy problems -- the Senate should save our shores. Better to pass an energy bill that invests in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy.