In 2015, the Obama administration proposed a five-year plan for offshore drilling that would open a section of the continental shelf from Virginia to Georgia for the first time in decades. The move came in response to many years of pressure from energy companies (and some oil-friendly state officials), but it represents a tremendous risk for the environment.
An oil spill off America's East Coast would result in economic and environmental catastrophe, damaging marine life, habitat, communities, and livelihoods. We know because we've already seen the same thing happen in the Gulf of Mexico.
What makes the plan to drill in the Atlantic so wrongheaded? Let us count the ways.
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 shows that if drilling goes forward, a major spill is likely.
2. Viable alternatives could produce far more energy.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that the total amount of recoverable oil in the Atlantic's outer continental shelf is 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. Are such limited "riches" really worth this much risk?
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 of Mexico produce 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. While new regulations were proposed in April 2015, they have yet to be implemented, and it will most likely take years to phase in new equipment.
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 attorney in NRDC's Oceans program. “That’s totally inadequate," she said. Tourism, recreation, and fishing along the Atlantic Coast—which would be put at risk by a spill—generate something like $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 climate change, such as more frequent and damaging hurricanes and rising sea levels. If offshore drilling becomes the legalized, acceptable norm—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.