Four days into the new year, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled a plan to open more than 90 percent of federal offshore waters to new oil and gas development, affecting virtually every mile of coastline along the continental United States and Alaska.
The single largest expansion ever proposed, this Draft Proposed Program calls for auctioning off ocean territories of the National Outer Continental Shelf in pieces, with 47 lease sales proposed from 2019 to 2024. This is more than quadruple the number of lease sales offered in the current program, finalized under the Obama administration and designed to remain in effect until 2022.
To hear drilling proponents tell it, the Trump administration’s bid to discard the existing plan in favor of this sudden and dramatic offshore drilling expansion is a “responsible” move geared toward “energy dominance.” Yet elected officials, business owners, fishing industry representatives, recreationalists, environmental advocates and coastal residents are uniting in opposition to this proposal, which is widely interpreted as reckless and short-sighted.
More than 300,000 Americans have submitted comments opposing expanded offshore drilling, pointing out that it jeopardizes community health and safety and locks us into fossil fuel reliance for decades. Anyone who recalls the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico knows that by the time a rig explosion has claimed lives and a toxic plume has oiled a coastline, it’s too late to reverse course. Meanwhile, this aggressive new leasing plan is moving ahead in tandem with a push to roll back safety regulations enacted in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, specifically to prevent a repeat scenario.
While drilling proponents like to play up hypothetical benefits like low oil prices and job creation, it should be clear by now that offshore drilling is not an economic boon. Every coastal community in America can reap economic benefits from healthy ocean ecosystems, fishing, recreation and tourism. Dirty, polluting oil rigs only threaten these economic drivers provided by nature.
Federal fossil fuel development ultimately racks up more public costs than benefits, putting taxpayers on the hook for decommissioning oil rigs and oil spill cleanups. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is a wiser economic choice in the long run. Even today, the Department of Energy’s own analysis shows there are more job opportunities and new employment potential in the clean energy sector than in the fossil fuel industry.
New offshore energy development also introduces troubling implications for national security. For one, it can hamstring military readiness by installing drilling rigs in strategically important areas. The Pentagon and NASA have long expressed reservations about offshore Atlantic energy development, which would interfere with existing naval operations and other defense programs.
In a broader sense, extracting and burning offshore oil reserves would only exacerbate climate change, which is increasingly understood to be a national security matter. As the planet warms, intensified drought, wildfires, sea level rise, and erratic growing seasons will all bring destabilizing effects.
Clean and renewable energy sources, on the other hand, are more climate-friendly and resilient, since pricing and supply aren’t tied to the volatile global oil market.
Rather than pursue this irresponsible path toward climate disruption, the United States should be working with other nations to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and develop the renewable energy technologies of the future. This plan not only wastes valuable time but also leads us toward perilous consequences. The Department of Interior itself estimated a 75 percent chance of a major oil spill occurring from just one lease sale in the Chukchi Sea of the Alaskan Arctic, where the nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away.
In addition to catastrophic oil disasters like Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, small yet toxic spills occur on a daily basis. In the Gulf of Mexico, more than 10,000 spills have been recorded this decade, its waters blighted by 27,000 abandoned, leaky wells. Nor is government equipped to respond: Government Accountability Office reports show that Interior and its Bureau of Safety and Environment Enforcement have failed in their mandates to foster a culture of safety and compliance in offshore oil and gas development.
Interior’s reckless new offshore leasing proposal threatens our marine and coastal environments, economies, national security and climate, all for the benefit of an unsustainable industry. The bid to expand offshore drilling while rolling back critical offshore drilling safety regulations is not only extraordinarily dangerous, it’s antithetical to the entire mission of the federal agency — which is to manage responsibly our public ocean waters on behalf of the American people.
Marissa Knodel is an associate legislative counsel with the Policy & Legislation team at Earthjustice in Washington. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.