Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill?

Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill?
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Last week, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt told the media that the Trump administration’s plan to drastically expand offshore oil and gas leasing will be delayed “indefinitely.” This is good news for our ocean, and all of us who depend on it.

Bernhardt attributed the delay to a court victory by conservation organizations, which invalidated President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE’s efforts to pursue leasing in most of the Arctic and portions of the Atlantic — areas that had been protected by the Obama administration. The release of the oil and gas leasing plan could even be delayed until after the 2020 election, leading to speculation that widespread opposition to offshore drilling may have played a strong role in the decision.

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Despite this good news, the threat to our ocean and coastal communities still exists. Bernhardt has not announced any intention to stop the planning process altogether and there has been no official announcement about the extent of the delay. There is no reason to think the current administration will step back from its efforts to expand offshore drilling or that Bernhardt will step away from his past as an oil and gas lobbyist.

In fact, the Department of the Interior just announced its rollback of the Well Control Rule that was designed to address problems made apparent by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which took 11 lives and spilled an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, over an 87-day period. 

This safety regulation was carefully developed over the course of six years, and involved significant input from stakeholders and industry. It also appears to be effective: After the rule took effect, 2017 was the first year in over a decade with no reported loss of well control incidents. Other important rules, like those designed to improve Arctic safety and preparedness and address the unique risks of operating in such a remote and challenging region, are likely to be next on the chopping block. 

It is important to remember what is at stake. The Trump administration’s plan opened virtually the entire U.S. ocean to possible oil and gas lease sales as part of the push for “energy dominance.” The plan included important habitat, fishing areas and regions like the entire Atlantic and Pacific seaboard, where there is overwhelming public opposition to new leasing. Even places with little or no potential for oil and gas development were put on the table for exploitation.

The offshore drilling plan generated fierce and bipartisan opposition from coastal state residents, businesses, municipalities, state legislatures, members of Congress and governors. Just this week New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a bill prohibiting oil and gas operations in state waters. Similar legislation has been introduced — and in many cases passed — in several other states. Offshore drilling in state waters was banned through a ballot initiative in Florida, which 68 percent of voters supported. And in Congress, legislation has been introduced — in many cases with support from both Republicans and Democrats — that would permanently ban drilling in every region of the United States. 

The Department of the Interior has acknowledged the widespread opposition with platitudes and meaningless theater. Former Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkePuerto Rican police fire tear gas at crowds protesting governor Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West MORE went so far as to tweet that Florida waters would be safe from offshore drilling after the Trump plan was released, a promise that was later retracted. There have been no official assurances provided by the Department of the Interior that any area will be protected from offshore drilling. 

For now, the Obama-era program will remain in effect, and plans for new lease sales in sensitive areas, like the Beaufort Sea, cannot go forward. But as we celebrate the delay of the offshore oil and gas plan, we must also redouble our efforts to stop expanded offshore drilling. A delay is not enough. We cannot stop until there are tangible protections for our ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on them. Congress has the power to provide the protections that coastal communities around the country are demanding. Congress must take action — now. 

Janis Searles Jones is the CEO of Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.