Offshore drilling — the Keystone pipeline of the sea

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While half a million people marched in New York and across the nation for climate action this fall and the U.S. launched a new air war in the oil-rich Middle East, President Obama moved forward on one of his least noted but potentially highest impact energy decisions.

Beginning this past summer the Department of Interior has been quietly accepting applications from oil companies to start seismic testing for oil and gas deposits off the eastern seaboard between Delaware and Florida as well as in new areas of the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic Ocean. This decision will open the way for five-year lease sales scheduled to begin in 2017. Like the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, new offshore oil drilling could threaten increased pollution, continued fossil fuel dependence and climate disaster. Environmentalists are also concerned about death and impairment to whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife from the high-volume sonic cannons used in the surveys. The government itself estimates the testing could impact 138,000 marine mammals.

{mosads}I recently asked Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell why, given all these factors, they were proceeding with this. Her reply, “It’s important to know what we have … and I think anyone would suggest that reducing dependence on foreign oil is good.”    

But is there an alternative to the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy that, along with solar subsidies and fracking, could picket the East Coast with offshore oil platforms and risk a BP type disaster in the frontier waters of the Arctic Ocean? There is. It’s called California.

“Get Oil Out” was the battle cry against offshore drilling following the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, a disaster that helped launch the modern environmental movement. Forty years later, when President Obama sent his first Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar to San Francisco to hold hearings on new leasing in 2009, the opposition remained unified and vociferous. 

More than 500 people including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the lieutenant governor and four House members testified and rallied for clean energy and against any new offshore oil drilling. Boxer noted that the coast was a treasure and a huge economic asset “just as is,” generating $24 billion a year and 390,000 California jobs.  This, along with a recent strongly worded anti-drilling letter sent to Secretary Jewel from the three West Coast governors, explains why the administration is willing to open up the Eastern Seaboard for the first time ever but ignore the Pacific Coast. “If the states don’t want it, it’s more likely you’ll concentrate where they do,” Secretary Jewell explained. In other words the administration’s energy decisions will be based not on science but on politics, with the biggest drilling conflicts now likely to emerge around Virginia, Alaska, Georgia and the Carolinas.

The best available science already indicates that in order to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change — if global temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius as they are now expected to — we have to choose not to tap two-thirds of the world’s known petroleum reserves.

California as a society has chosen to leave its offshore oil under the seabed, increase its energy efficiency and conservation and, with carbon pricing through cap-and-trade, begin a needed transition to clean energy including wind, solar and hydro.  This has also sparked a wave of innovation, from the Tesla electric car, to Google smart cables for bringing offshore wind power onshore, to solar powered wave gliding sea drones for research and national defense. 

While the President’s Climate Action Plan for coal-fired utility emissions would reduce greenhouse gases by some 2 billion tons, there could be 30 times those emissions from the burning of all the estimated offshore oil reserves set to be surveyed and leased in the next few years. And the incentive to keep drilling remains huge for companies like BP, Exxon, Shell and Chevron since the U.S. government (along with other oil and gas producing nations such as Iran, Iraq and Russia) has failed to follow California’s lead by putting a price on carbon.

While Barack Obama talks a good game on climate and innovation it looks increasingly likely that seeing the end of offshore drilling won’t happen until California’s old battle cry of ‘Get Oil Out’ is heard from sea to shining sea. People will also need to make it an issue in the 2016 elections since this president, while willing to battle terrorists on the blood soaked sands of the Middle East, lacks the will to stand up to Big Oil. 


Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, a marine conservation group. His latest book is The Golden Shore — California’s Love Affair with the Sea.

Tags Barack Obama Barbara Boxer Sally Jewell
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