Arctic Offshore Oil Drilling Is Back in Play
Environmentalists are hailing the Obama administration for removing the Atlantic coast from the list of areas approved for offshore drilling—but they aren’t too happy with other parts of the five-year plan released Tuesday.
They charge that the plan’s 13 new oil and gas leases in the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico will undercut America’s commitments to slash its carbon emissions under the Paris climate accord and endanger wildlife and coastal communities.
Ten of the new areas opened to fossil fuel development between 2017 and 2022 would be located in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Obviously, this is an important win for the Atlantic,” said Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. But “the Gulf of Mexico remains a sacrifice zone in this plan,” he said.
Among other concerns, Jasny noted that bottlenose dolphins along the Gulf coast continue to suffer years after the disaster. Researchers have linked the ongoing high rates of dolphin deaths with exposure to the oil from BP’s damaged undersea well.
“Even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon, where you have a region that is in many ways still profoundly affected by that spill, the administration is continuing to offer new areas for leasing,” Jasny said. “It’s destructive of ocean life, destructive to communities, and inconsistent with the president’s vision and commitment to a clean energy future.”
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, more than 1,400 marine mammals have stranded along the Gulf coast since April 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon leak began.
Nearly all were dead—most were bottlenose dolphins—and the stranding rate remains higher than it was before the oil spill.
Jasny said the drilling plan for the Gulf also threatens offshore populations of whales with increased noise pollution, habitat disruption, and spilled oil.
“There’s a very small Bryde’s whale population in the eastern Gulf, the only great whale resident in the entirety of the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jasny. Numbering below 50 individuals, these Bryde’s whales are both genetically unique and “threatened six ways to Sunday, and this proposed program would do nothing to conserve them,” he noted.
The plan proposes three drilling leases in Alaskan waters, in Cook Inlet and the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
The Cook Inlet lease area borders on critical habitat for a genetically unique and endangered population of around 300 beluga whales. Leasing would put them at risk from seismic testing, Jasny said.
These underwater sound tests, used by the petroleum industry to locate underground oil and gas deposits, have “been shown to cause whales to abandon their habitat, stop foraging, and closer-in to suffer injury and even in some cases die,” he said.
The inlet also contains habitat for a threatened northern sea otter population, and “several commercially important fisheries, such as all five species of Pacific salmon, Pacific herring, and eulachon,” according to the draft plan.
On Alaska’s northern coast, the proposed lease areas exclude the 9.8 million environmentally sensitive offshore acres that Obama deemed permanently off-limits to oil and gas drilling last year in an executive order. Hanna Shoal, a biodiversity hot spot in the Chukchi that is a vital feeding ground for walruses and seals, is among the areas now restricted from drilling.
But they include other regions that the government has tagged “environmentally important areas,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told reporters during a Tuesday press conference. The agency has not ruled out withdrawing these areas from fossil energy development, she said.
“Those EIAs in the Arctic areas—we’re particularly interested in getting public comment on,” Abby Hopper, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told reporters at the same press conference.
Potential lease sites along the southeastern United States were removed from the plan in response to public comment as well as pushback from the military. “We heard from many corners that now is not the time to starting leasing off the Atlantic coast,” said Jewell, namely coastal communities, the Department of Defense, and NASA.
Low prices for oil and gas on commodity markets also factored into the decision, she said.
Conservation and climate groups are calling on the Obama administration to end all oil and gas development in Arctic waters.
“Last week, the U.S. and Canada committed to strong science and bold decisions to address climate and the changing Arctic,” said the World Wildlife Fund in a statement. “This week, the Obama administration reaffirmed its intentions but delivered nothing in the way of definitive decisions about the Arctic’s future.”
“By leaving the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico open to new leasing, the proposed program fails to comply with the Paris Agreement,” said a statement from Marissa Knodel of Friends of the Earth. “The science is clear. We must keep fossil fuels in the ground, and President Obama’s climate legacy depends on doing just that.”