Sarah Chasis (left) and Lisa Speer ready to present the Interior Dept. with petitions from NRDC members opposing offshore drilling in Bristol Bay, ca. 1986. (Joshua Horowitz/NRDC)

Ocean Steward

Sarah Chasis, a senior attorney in the Nature Program’s Oceans division, has nearly 50 years of experience defending our coasts from offshore drilling.

In 1973, Sarah Chasis became NRDC’s first full-time female lawyer. Over the ensuing decades, she would go on to protect sensitive areas from offshore oil drilling, safeguard the public from swimming in polluted waters, strengthen both domestic and international fisheries management, and promote smarter ocean planning. In recognition of her work, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration named Chasis its first Coastal Steward of the Year in 1992. She remains one of the nation’s leading experts on coastal policy.

In 1969, one year before NRDC’s founding, an offshore oil spill spewed three million gallons of crude into the waters off Santa Barbara. What was NRDC doing about offshore drilling when you came on board?

The Santa Barbara spill was a seminal trigger for the passage of key environmental laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act. When I arrived in 1973, two of NRDC’s founders, Ed Strohbehn and Tom Stoel, had sued to stop the Nixon administration from pursuing a lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn’t until the Carter administration that offshore drilling really became a national issue. As oil prices skyrocketed, Carter led a push for energy independence, and his Interior Department offered the first lease sales in the Atlantic Ocean. But there was no thorough assessment of environmental impacts and no meaningful consultation with coastal communities that could be impacted by the drilling.

So Frances Beinecke and I launched NRDC’s Coastal Project [some 30 years before Frances became the organization’s president]. We worked to strengthen the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. We didn’t get everything we wanted, but the 1978 amendments brought about the five-year offshore drilling planning process, which was designed to make the leasing process more rational and transparent. After the amendments passed, we challenged the first five-year plan in court and won.

And then came the Reagan years. How did having a foe of environmental protection in the White House change your tactics?

Reagan’s Interior secretary, James Watt, perverted the planning process. He had a religious fervor about man’s obligation to develop the natural resources of the earth. He was really a zealot.

Watt proposed leasing a billion acres. Along with several coastal states, NRDC challenged the plan in its entirety in court. We lost but didn’t give up. We brought legal challenges to individual lease sales off Alaska, New England, and California.

The lawsuits bought Congress time to act. The administration had so overreached that members of Congress started putting riders on appropriations bills to prevent lease sales in their states’ coastal waters. While I was in court, Lisa Speer, who now oversees our International Oceans division, was working on the Hill to support passage of these riders. By the end of the 1980s, almost the entire outer continental shelf aside from the central and western Gulf of Mexico was protected by riders. It was amazing.

Cleaning up the shoreline of Naked Island’s Cabin Bayin Prince William Sound after the oil spill of the Exxon Valdez, 1989

Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

After the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, President George H. W. Bush issued a presidential withdrawal of many of these areas, protecting them from drilling, and President Clinton extended the withdrawals. We had most of the continental shelf off-limits to drilling for more than 20 years. It was due in large measure to Watt’s overreach and the opposition that ensued.

One of NRDC’s greatest victories was ushering in a permanent ban on drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. This came during Obama’s second term. What was the significance of that act?

It was huge. We’ve been fighting alongside local people and fishing groups to protect Alaska’s coasts since the 1980s. As for the Atlantic, we brought scientists together in 2000 to identify important ecological areas for protection. They highlighted the offshore deep sea canyons, where the upwelling of nutrients creates vital feeding areas for fish, whales, and dolphins. The hard substrate carved into the continental shelf is also home to deep sea corals and sponges. Safeguarding these magnificent areas is critical, which is why NRDC is now in court defending President Obama’s offshore withdrawals from being overturned.

So now that NRDC is back to fighting offshore drilling in courts and in legislatures around the country, does it feel reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s?

In some ways. By proposing to open up vast areas off virtually every coastline to drilling, the Trump administration has overreached—the same mistake Watt made. And just like in the 1980s, we’re seeing bipartisan opposition. For example, in Florida and other places along the southeastern coast, Republicans and Democrats have come together to stop offshore drilling.

A mother North Atlantic right whale and her young calf swimming off Sapelo Island, Georgia

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA research permit #15488

NRDC has been fighting to protect our oceans for 50 years, and you’ve been there for 46 of them. What are your hopes for the oceans for the next 50 years? Can we fix what’s broken?

Three of the most important things we can do to restore and protect the ocean are to substantially reduce greenhouse emissions, end overfishing, and expand protected areas. For example, scientists are now calling for protecting at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030 as a way to promote resilience in the face of climate change. NRDC is working on all these fronts to ensure that the ocean continues to sustain marine life and support the hundreds of millions of people who rely on it for their sustenance, livelihoods, and way of life. 

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