Atlantic Oil Drilling Is a Terrible Idea

While past leasing proposals have included the Atlantic among other large swaths of the U.S. coastline, today the vast majority of Americans agree that opening up more areas for leasing spells disaster for our climate and our economy.

Michael Hagedorn/Fuse/Getty

In 2016, near the end of his term, President Obama announced he was permanently removing most U.S. Arctic waters and huge portions of the U.S. Atlantic Ocean from oil and gas leasing. It was a move that was supported by the vast majority of Americans and hailed at the time as a “historic victory.” 

But the celebration was short-lived. Within months of taking office, President Trump declared he was undoing those protections, subjecting vast swaths of the U.S. Arctic and 31 deepwater canyons in the Atlantic to fossil fuel exploitation once again. Attorneys from NRDC and Earthjustice quickly countered the move, filing suit on behalf of a broad coalition. Two years later, ocean and climate advocates again breathed a sigh of relief when a federal court in Alaska ruled that Trump’s executive order to open these ocean areas to expedited oil and gas leasing was unlawful.  

An oil disaster off of the East Coast would likely have resulted in economic and environmental catastrophe, damaging marine life and habitats, communities, and livelihoods. We know because we've already seen the same thing happen in the Gulf of Mexico—where the bulk of offshore drilling takes place today. NRDC is continuing to advocate for no new lease sales, as the imperative to shift away from fossil fuels and to advance our climate goals grows increasingly urgent. While drilling in the Atlantic is no longer on the table, here’s a refresher on why it remains wrongheaded.

1. The Atlantic Ocean is a vast, important part of our ecosystem. Drilling would most certainly harm it.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster brutalized the Gulf of Mexico after the drilling rig exploded and sank to the ocean bottom. More than 1,000 miles of coastline were affected. Yet, following the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, little changed—in terms of technology, policy, or common sense.

Two years later, an explosion on a Black Elk Energy offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed three workers. A year after that, another gulf rig failed, spilling natural gas for two days and catching fire. Proponents of drilling in the Atlantic have done nothing to demonstrate why doing the same thing off a different coastline would be any safer. In fact, the government's own analysis showed that if drilling had gone forward years ago, a major spill would have been likely.

2. Viable alternatives could produce far more energy.

In 2014, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimated that the total amount of recoverable oil in the Atlantic's outer continental shelf was 4.72 billion barrels. If we relied instead on clean fuels and energy efficiency, by 2035 we could exceed that number in energy savings each year. What's more, stronger federal mileage standards for cars and light trucks could save 12 billion barrels—nearly three times the total recoverable amount—over the life of those vehicles. 

3. Drilling technology develops much faster than safety technology.

In the 1960s, a productive well yielded 200 barrels of oil daily; a half-century later, the ultra-deep wells in the Gulf were producing up to 1,000 times that amount—yet safety measures have not improved at nearly the same rate.

S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, who oversaw government regulation of the offshore drilling industry at the time of the Gulf disaster, wrote in April 2014 that she was stunned and disappointed about how "little action" had been taken to lower the risks. According to Birnbaum, the administration has not even implemented most of the recommendations that its own experts made to prevent future disasters.

Even the regulation of blowout preventers—the fail-safe that's supposed to avert a massive spill when everything else goes wrong—has changed very little since the Deepwater Horizon’s preventer failed in 2010. And more than a decade later, many Gulf communities are still reeling from the health and economic impacts of the disaster

4. Liability caps show just how much oil companies and the U.S. government fear spills.

A provision in federal law caps liability at $134 million for an offshore spill, notes Sarah Chasis, a senior strategist in NRDC's oceans division. “That’s totally inadequate," she said. Tourism, recreation, and fishing along the Atlantic coast—which would be put at risk by a spill—generate around $90 billion annually and employ nearly a million people.

5. The areas most likely to be at risk are already suffering.

Coastal communities are dealing with the fallout from the climate crisis, such as more frequent and damaging hurricanes and rising sea levels. If the U.S. Department of the Interior commits to any new offshore oil and gas leasing along our coastline—unleashing carbon reserves that currently live underground—subsequent decades of carbon pollution and climate chaos will be locked in, causing even more economic and environmental devastation to our coasts.

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