Offshore drilling and lessons unlearned
Anniversary of Deepwater Horizon disaster is a telling time to consider more offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico
(Reprint from Houston Chronicle guest commentary on April 18)
What a great cosmic joke: On the sixth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the federal government is holding a public hearing on issuing new offshore oil drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. But, given the real possibility of more such disasters, nobody is laughing.
Instead, Gulf Coast residents have been rising up against the fossil fuel industry and the government agencies that refuse to properly regulate it or get serious about reducing our carbon emissions. Hundreds rallied at the Superdome in New Orleans last month to challenge the latest oil lease offering for the Gulf and this newly awakened movement is primed for round two this week.
The Department of the Interior is holding hearings around the country on its recently unveiled draft five-year offshore energy development plan. The Atlantic Ocean was removed from the plan after East Coast residents organized a strong opposition campaign, but the feds doubled down on drilling in the Gulf, proposing 10 new leases that could last for decades each. That would open up to 71 million acres in the Gulf for new drilling rigs, which would endanger wildlife and coastal communities while exacerbating climate change.
One hearing was held Monday in New Orleans and the other is in Houston on Wednesday — the anniversary of Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and thousands of birds, sea turtles and marine mammals as it spewed millions of gallons of oil per day for almost three months. At both hearings, despite meeting formats that limit meaningful input, the public will urge the government to change course. Offshore drilling is inherently dangerous and we need to leave this oil in the ground to avoid the worst climate change scenarios, meet our international obligations and protect Gulf communities.
I attended the Superdome event and will be at the two Gulf Coast hearings this week; I’ve seen how passionate longtime Gulf residents are about this issue. They’re sick and tired of their neighborhoods and waterways being treated like sacrifice zones to this country’s overreliance on fossil fuels. For many, Deepwater Horizon was a heartbreaking tipping point, and they’re no longer willing to just accept business as usual, not when rising seas and more and stronger hurricanes are taking a devastating toll on the Gulf Coast.
Rejecting all new offshore oil and gas leases in federal waters would prevent almost 62 billion tons of greenhouse gases from fueling climate change. It would also reduce the risk of more devastating oil spills. The independent commission established by President Obama to investigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster found a “systemic” breakdown in the government’s environmental review. And despite Obama’s claim that he has taken steps to avoid another one, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in February finding that little has changed in how offshore rigs are regulated. The report says the administration “continues to rely on pre-Deepwater Horizon incident policies and procedures,” which give short shrift to environmental protection.
The Gulf of Mexico is home to thousands of offshore oil and gas wells, and the fossil fuel industry has been an important economic driver for the region. But times are changing. Deepwater Horizon was a wake-up call, and so was the Paris climate accord reached in December. We can heed that call starting this month by turning away from the fossil fuels that brought us the Gulf oil spill and unleashed the unfolding climate crisis. There’s an opportunity to write a new future for the Gulf Coast and indeed the planet if we can transition away from the dirty energy projects of yesterday and toward the clean power that the world needs and is demanding.
Kopcho is an oceans campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Originally published at www.houstonchronicle.com.