In January 1969, an oil spill from an offshore drilling platform off California’s Santa Barbara County coast spewed an estimated three million gallons of crude, swiftly turning a 35-mile stretch of idyllic Pacific shoreline into a devastating oil slick. The oil killed thousands of seabirds, poisoned seals and dolphins, and destroyed delicate marine habitats.
It was an unprecedented event in American history. Yet ensuing decades would see offshore oil spills even bigger in scale. Oil still lingers today from the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in the waters of Alaska’s Prince William Sound, and impacts from the BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling disaster in 2010 topped both incidents, killing 11 workers and spreading millions of gallons of oil throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
These catastrophes garner big headlines, and for good reason: Dramatic in the short term, they spell long-term devastation for coastal communities, ecosystems, and economies. But they’re only one way in which offshore drilling wreaks havoc. The oil and gas industry’s routine business practices devastate marine wildlife with deafening seismic air gun blasts, destroy habitat for infrastructure development, emit toxic by-products and high levels of greenhouse gases, and lead to tens of thousands of smaller “invisible spills” in U.S. waters annually.
“The bottom line is this: Where you drill, you spill,” says Franz Matzner, NRDC’s deputy director for federal campaigns. “Even a smaller spill puts pollution in the ocean and in the air, degrades the environment, and affects communities.” And following a spill, even the most advanced cleanup efforts remove only a fraction of the oil and use hazardous technologies. “In short,” Matzner adds, “the only protection from offshore drilling is no drilling.”
To that end, NRDC has fought to defend the United States’ outer continental shelf from offshore drilling since the organization’s founding in 1970. The team dedicated to safeguarding these vast areas of publicly owned coastal waters includes policy experts, attorneys, and marine scientists. Last December, capping nearly a half century of advocacy work, these ocean champions helped secure a major victory, with President Obama’s issuance of a permanent ban on drilling in most U.S. Arctic waters and huge swaths of the U.S. Atlantic. “For those of us who were at the center of the fight, it was the most exciting and gratifying professional moment that any of us had ever known,” says Niel Lawrence, NRDC senior attorney and Alaska program director. “I’ve had some big wins, but this topped them all.” It was a decision likewise celebrated by millions of Americans who had lent their support to the fight.
Just four months later, however—and in a clear kowtowing to international oil conglomerates—President Trump announced his “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” an executive order attempting to put Atlantic and Arctic waters back on the drilling map.
It was a political setback, but NRDC is long on experience when it comes to battling the offshore oil and gas industry—and its lobbyists. “From the outset, we argued for the permanent ban in part knowing that legally it should withstand any such rollback,” says Lawrence. “And we were prepared to challenge one in court if need be.” Indeed, in May 2017, NRDC and Earthjustice—its closest ally on this issue—filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of President Trump’s attempts to override the Obama administration’s Arctic and Atlantic protections.
A Perennial Problem, a Novel Solution
The oil and gas industry has made it a mission to regularly reignite the battle to open and expose new areas to drilling. It’s a cycle perpetuated by the U.S. Department of Interior, which—by law and following extensive public and industry input—publishes a new offshore leasing plan every five years. The plan specifies which federal waters will be available for future drilling, and Matzner notes that, depending on the posture of the administration in power, “you see a pendulum swing in proposals that [avoid] areas that have been protected for decades and proposals that try to put them back on the table.”
Even before President Obama and his administration began preparations for the 2017–2022 lease plan, NRDC saw an opportunity to create a lasting solution to this perennial problem. “It was time to stop asking the same questions every five years,” Matzner says. So NRDC proposed a novel solution: Use the law to protect these areas from offshore drilling forever.
“We discovered there was a statute that gave the president executive authority to end oil and gas drilling permanently in any part of the United States,” Lawrence says. And given his record of forward-thinking climate policies, “we thought we could get the president to see that, especially for undeveloped areas decades away from production, there was no way we could ever burn that oil and still meet rational climate goals,” Lawrence explains.
Finally, Matzner adds, “circumstances had changed to make the idea seem viable.”
To start, “people didn’t want to make the same mistake again,” says Alexandra Adams, NRDC’s senior oceans advocate. Like most of the world, Adams, who grew up in southern Florida near the Atlantic, was horrified to see how the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill—and its aftermath—played out. “We watched it have a direct, immediate impact on communities, livelihoods, and economies that depend on fishing, tourism, and recreation. It still has an impact. After a disaster like that, people couldn’t believe we’d expose ourselves to that kind of risk again.”
What’s more, there was increased public awareness about climate change and the climate consequences of drilling, as well as greater interest in alternatives to oil for meeting U.S. energy and economic needs. “The solutions are in people’s driveways and on their roofs right now—plug-in hybrids, solar energy,” Matzner says. “People recognized that we don’t need this oil and we’re not going to need it in the future.”
But public opinion carries only so much weight against the political muscle of the oil industry. “The outcome of this seed of an idea was never inevitable,” says Matzner. Indeed, an early-2015 draft proposal for the Obama administration’s 2017–2022 lease plan moved to open a vast stretch of federal waters along the Atlantic coast. And in a particularly brutal blow in 2015, Obama even gave Shell Oil Company the go-ahead to drill in Alaska’s pristine Chukchi Sea, despite the energy giant’s history of pollution violations in Arctic waters. “That was a crucial point,” Matzner says. “The proposal to open these areas was met with massive public backlash.”
Up and down the Atlantic coast, local, state, and federally elected officials, communities, businesses, tourism associations, fishing groups, scientists, and conservation organizations stood up and said, “Our coast is not for sale.” Thousands of resolutions and letters opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing were submitted. On the West Coast, Seattle “kayaktivists” faced off against an Arctic-bound Shell oil rig, and Nobel laureates outlined the moral imperative of Arctic protections.
For its part, NRDC engaged in direct advocacy with lawmakers, worked to debunk flawed data posited by pro-polluter lobbyists, rallied diverse allies to the cause, and focused on public outreach, aiming to ensure that the voice of every concerned citizen and community was heard. NRDC also joined a coalition lawsuit challenging Shell’s risky and reckless drilling plan, co-litigated against seismic exploration in the Arctic with Earthjustice, and partnered with legislators on bills to cut off the oil industry from the Arctic and all federal waters more generally. And through the Arctic spill risk analysis it provided, NRDC demonstrated that any Arctic spill would have wide-reaching impacts on the entire region. “We showed it’s a false notion that we can drill in some places in the Arctic, but draw lines around other areas and say we’ve protected them,” Matzner says.
NRDC also provided scientific analysis on the consequences of drilling infrastructure projects for global warming. “We began building the first White House–oriented arguments for treating offshore drilling as a climate issue,” Lawrence says. “Working with researchers and scientists, we were able to make the case that you can’t beat climate change fast enough if you keep flooding the world with more and more oil that competes against clean alternatives and efficiency measures.’ Additionally, it provided polling data showing that investments in offshore drilling were wholly out of step with the desires of the greater American public. Perhaps most important, however, NRDC identified a clear, viable way for President Obama to create lasting environmental protection offshore.
These efforts paid off. In March 2016, the U.S. Interior Department announced that no new lease sales would be scheduled for the Atlantic outer continental shelf through 2022. And in November 2016, a similar announcement was made regarding the Arctic. A final, permanent ban from President Obama came on December 20, 2016.
“It was a moment of utter elation,” says Matzner, as the U.S. signaled to the world that it was serious about doing its part to mitigate global temperature rise. “It was another way of saying, ‘We are not going to hedge our bets. We believe the world can meet its climate commitments, and there’s simply no reason to expose these areas to drilling for the next 30 years.’ That’s an enormously powerful statement, both ethically and pragmatically, to other governments and the investment community. It filled me and many others with hope.”
That hope buoys the ocean advocates standing up against the Trump administration’s determination to pillage these and so many other environmental protections—including those geared toward improving public health and safety along our coasts, notes Adams. (Trump’s executive order even attempts to roll back what few safety improvements were adopted for the offshore drilling industry following the BP spill to reduce the risks to workers, whom he claims to support.) And their fight continues to generate bipartisan support, even inland.
“We have senators from Wisconsin, Nevada, and Ohio standing up and saying, ‘Not on our watch. We’re going to respect these public waters because they belong to us just as much as they belong to people from New Jersey and Florida,’” Matzner says. “There’s a recognition that the negative impact of drilling will fall on the shoulders of everyone. Just as oil spills don’t respect boundaries on an ocean map, the impacts of climate change, economic disruption, and air pollution don’t stop at Louisiana’s borders.”
NRDC is fighting in court to uphold the permanent ban and ensure that safeguards are kept in place. “Anything the Interior Department does in reliance on this [executive] order, we are prepared to challenge as necessary,” says Lawrence. Already, NRDC is contesting seismic exploration permits issued in parts of the Atlantic that cross into the withdrawn areas.
NRDC has also submitted technical comments on the Trump administration’s new five-year plan and is working feverishly to ensure that all other oceans, including the Pacific, don’t face a similar assault. Perhaps most important, NRDC is continuing to stand with legislators, thousands of communities, tens of thousands of businesses and organizations, and millions of people demanding that our public coasts be preserved.
“This is a very potent moment for the administration,” says Matzner. “Just how far are they going to go in ignoring the public, the science, and even voices within their own party?”