On March 31st, 2010 to the shock and amazement of clean energy advocates, President Barack Obama announced that the Department of the Interior would seek to lease offshore areas that were previously protected from oil and natural gas development as part of the new 5-year lease sale plan set to begin in 2012.
Less than three weeks later, the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, which took the lives of eleven oil workers and unleashed the worst environmental catastrophe this country has ever experienced.
Now, on December 1st, 2010, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the previously protected offshore areas, including the Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, will in fact NOT be included in the 2012-2017 lease sale plan, thus reversing the Administration’s March announcement. This decision means that fortunately, for now, our Southeast waters will continue to be protected from offshore oil and natural gas drilling for another five years.
Offshore oil drilling has been a dangerous, unnecessary and economically damaging undertaking even prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in April. Secretary Salazar and President Obama made a wise choice to reverse the March decision to include previously protected areas in the future offshore oil leasing program. However, more must be done to ensure that our waters are off-limits for future drilling. President Obama ought to follow in the footsteps of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to reinstate the moratorium, which prohibits offshore oil drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Reinstating the presidential moratorium (which President George W. Bush removed in 2008) would protect our coastal economies and ecosystems from potential future disastrous oil spills. Many jobs along the coasts – especially tourism and fishing – rely on a clean environment. For example, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commercial fishing efforts in the Gulf of Mexico generated $659 million in total landings revenue in 2008. However, those revenue and jobs were threatened by the BP disaster, and continue to be threatened – just last week portions of the Gulf were closed to shrimping when vessels began collecting oil tar balls. The Gulf’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry was directly affected by the impacts of the oil disaster, and tourists have also been indirectly deterred by the simple perception that the whole Gulf coast was damaged.
Opening the entire Atlantic and Pacific oceans will not result in energy independence. In an analysis by the United States Department of Energy in 2008, expanding offshore oil drilling to include the Atlantic and Pacific coasts would not make the country energy independent, and would actually likely result in a three-cents-per gallon of gasoline savings in 2030. The United States gets only about 10% of its oil from offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, contrary to what many people think.
Perhaps non-coincidentally, the Department of the Interior announced last week a new program to advance offshore wind energy development on the Atlantic coast. The new initiative mirrors the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts for rapidly permitting renewable energy projects on federal lands onshore. The “Smart from the Start” initiative will identify priority offshore Wind Energy Areas offshore that appear most suitable for development. The Department of the Interior is in charge of leasing offshore areas for oil and natural gas development, as well as offshore wind energy projects.
President Obama and the Department of the Interior should prioritize offshore wind energy projects over offshore oil and natural gas development. These two announcements, withdrawing areas offshore for oil and gas development and fast-tracking offshore wind development, are both very promising towards this end. By reinstating the presidential moratorium, the Obama Administration could help prevent another economic disaster like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and remain focused on true energy independence in the form of offshore wind energy.
Read SACE’s press statement on this important announcement here.