On Tuesday, the Obama administration released a proposal to sell offshore oil and gas leases in new areas of federally owned waters, including regions along the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Georgia. The announcement is part of the Department of Interior’s latest five-year plan, which includes federal leases from 2017 to 2022.
Congressional bans on offshore drilling in the Atlantic ended in 2008 and Obama first pushed for Atlantic Coast leasing in 2010. Several weeks after announcing lease plans for south and mid-Atlantic drilling the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico, and also blew up these plans.
Environmental groups see this revisiting of the plans as a case of “oil spill amnesia.” They argue that the technology or regulations have not advanced significantly in the five years since the Deepwater Horizon Spill, the fallout from which continues in economic recovery and prolonged legal battles over fines and compensation.
“The South-Atlantic has never been home to oil production,” Sierra B. Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ThinkProgress. “When exploratory drilling was proposed off of North Carolina in the 1980s, the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred and plans were shelved because we didn’t want that risk here. In 2010 after the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, the Obama administration cancelled a lease sale off of Virginia because it was also too risky. That risk hasn’t changed.”
The proposal is a draft that could be significantly altered or narrowed after upcoming months of public hearings and input, however it does not require congressional approval. The entire draft includes 14 potential lease sales in eight different areas, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, but also three off the coast of Alaska and the portion along Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia.
“At this early stage in considering a lease sale in the Atlantic, we are looking to build up our understanding of resource potential, as well as risks to the environment and other uses,” said Jewell. According to the DOI, any potential Atlantic leases would require a 50-mile coastal buffer to reduce conflicts with endeavors ranging from NASA undertakings to recreational fishing.
The proposed opening of federal waters for drilling comes just days after the Obama administration announced plans to protect more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which would prohibit oil and gas drilling. If the White House’s proposal does get upheld by Congress, ANWR’s designation as a wilderness area would be the largest such designation since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964.
This initial move, which elicited praise from environmental groups, contrasts with Tuesday’s announcement, which dredged up doubt and apprehension from groups like Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth.
“Obama appears to be trying to balance development and environmental protection,” Claire Douglass, campaign director for climate and energy at Oceana, told ThinkProgress. “We are glad the president is protecting the Arctic but concerned that he is opening up new areas for drilling.”
Douglass said they see the announcement as moving in the wrong direction, and that even if it doesn’t get through the review process it is still “wasting time and tax dollars.” Instead, she said, “we need to double down on alternative energy sources.”
Earlier this month, Oceana released a report stating that offshore wind would produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. The report claims that offshore wind could create about 91,000 more jobs over the next 20 years than offshore drilling and generate up to 143 gigawatts of power, enough to power over 115 million households.
The federal government estimates there are about 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the Atlantic’s outer continental shelf and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. However these numbers are based on 1980’s seismic surveys using inferior technology. One of the first steps in any new drilling would be to conduct updated resource estimates using high-pressure underwater seismic airgun blasts, a process that is opposed by a number of groups on grounds that it causes undue and unreasonable harm to marine life.
“Shooting seismic airguns is an unnecessary insult to marine life and coastal economies,” Jacqueline Savitz, Vice President for U.S. Oceans at Oceana, said in the statement last year. “Our message is simple; do not turn the Atlantic into a blast zone.”