Monday, October 3, 2016

Offshore Drilling: Have We Learned Our Lessons Yet?

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
The U.S. Coast Guard responds to the Deepwater
Horizon explosion.
Credit: NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration


In recent weeks, I have discussed offshore renewable energy technologies like offshore wind and hydrokinetics. While offshore development for these renewable energy technologies is new, the same cannot be said for offshore fossil fuel development.

The U.S. Has a Long History of Offshore Fossil Fuel Development (and Spills).

Offshore oil drilling began in the Pacific Ocean over a hundred years ago, according to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. Yet a 100 years’ worth of experience has not helped us to avoid the omnipresent risks of oil spills and subsequent environmental disaster.

About six and a half years ago, the U.S. suffered the worst offshore oil spill in history: Deepwater Horizon. On April 21, 2010, an explosion aboard the offshore drilling platform, Macondo, resulted in the release of approximately 168 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil spill devastated local ecosystems and wildlife populations, including some marine species critical to local fishing industries. Scientists continue to study the long-term effects of the spill. For example, just last week scientists released a study on how the oil coated and killed marsh grasses, causing marsh erosion that may be permanent, which means a potentially permanent reduction in how well the coastal marshes can serve as carbon sinks, wildlife ecosystems, and storm surge reducers. But we still do not know all the environmental effects. At a Senate committee hearing on the spill in 2015, experts reviewed lessons learned from the spill but lamented the continuing gaps in scientific knowledge.  

Deepwater Horizon did more than just wreak environmental havoc. Eleven crew members died, an oft-overlooked consequence of the explosion. The film Deepwater Horizon came out this past weekend to honor these workers, according to the movie director. Additionally, the spill continues to affect many Gulf state residents, as documented by first-hand accounts in the 2015 film, the Great Invisible. Last month, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new $328 million three-year plan to continue recovery efforts for coastal agricultural areas. Offshore drilling for oil and gas threatens local economies as well as local ecosystems.

Unfortunately, so long as drilling continues, oil spills, big or small, are inevitable. While proponents argue that Deepwater Horizon was unusual and that new safety regulations decrease the chance of spills, critics remain skeptical. Deepwater Horizon was unusual in spilling such a large quantity of oil but not in spilling. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oil spills (from rigs and other sources) happen “nearly every day.”

This week, the U.S. has over 500 oil and gas rigs off the coast. If one has a mishap, oil may spill. And oil spills are difficult to clean up. While the U.S. has established more safety protocols and regulations to govern offshore drilling (including some just this past April), it remains a dangerous enterprise.

But What if Drilling Does Not Continue?

Last Tuesday, over 70 Congressmen signed a letter asking President Obama to stop offshore drilling by withdrawing all Atlantic and Pacific Ocean waters from future leasing. The letter follows one submitted by major environmental groups the week before. The President has the power to do so under Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA), which states “The President of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.” 43 U.S.C. §1341(a). The letters note that if the president makes such a withdrawal—declaring the areas no longer available for leasing—it may permanently stop drilling, since the law does not authorize a future president to undo such an act.

If a president did withdraw all Atlantic and Pacific Ocean waters from leasing, he would do so under the congressional authorization of the 1953 OCSLA, but it would be highly controversial. The authorization is similar to that given to presidents to declare national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act. Last month, President Obama established the first marine monument off the Atlantic Coast, protecting almost 5,000 square miles of ocean. The declaration comes on the heels of the president’s declaration in August expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument near Hawaii by an additional 442,781 square miles, thus protecting a total 582,578 square miles. These monuments cover only a fraction of the areas the Congressmen proposed be withdrawn under OCSLA, but even these presidential declarations have fallen under critique.

When the president declares a national monument under the 110-year-old Antiquities Act, he may do so without consulting Congress or relevant state or local officials. Disgruntled officials claim the president is abusing his authority by declaring so many monuments that cover such large areas. The current Republican platform calls for amending the 1906 Antiquities Act to require the president obtain approval for future monuments from both Congress and from the relevant state’s congressmen. Because the president’s authority under OCSLA is similar to that under the Antiquities Act, the GOP would likely amend both if it gets the chance.

An arguably less controversial approach than using OCSLA to wholly withdraw all Atlantic and Pacific Ocean waters from leasing is already underway, thanks to the Obama Administration’s release of new regulations in August. The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issues guidance to federal agencies on how to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); NEPA requires environmental analyses for most major federal actions. The CEQ’s new guidance, among other things, “recommends that agencies quantify a proposed agency action’s projected direct and indirect GHG emissions.” This is huge. Under the guidance agencies must consider direct, indirect and cumulative effects of proposed actions; this means before an agency could issue a drilling lease, it would have to consider the emissions likely to result from drilling and eventual use of the oil or gas obtained. While an agency could grant a lease regardless of the environmental effects, considering emissions may delay the process or at least make a decision to lease more politically unpalatable.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is currently at work reviewing public comments and finalizing its Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Programmatic EIS) for the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program.  With the new CEQ guidance, BOEM will have to quantify the emissions likely to result from its program and it may face significant public and political opposition to leasing.


Perhaps the best option for opposing fossil fuels and offshore drilling, however, is the continued pursuit of renewable energy sources. If you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em obsolete! 

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