The recent Interior Department proposal to allow offshore oil and gas drilling along the East Coast, announced on the very same day that portions of Alaska were disallowed for drilling to protect the environment, is insulting and more than a little absurd.
Waves of drilling could likely precede waves of oil lapping at the shores of our beloved beaches and storied seaports, imperiling fish, wildlife, local economies and treasured ways of life.
The potential rewards for Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay are not worth the risk of more seismic testing — let alone another calamitous spill.
The oil and gas industry frequently tells us drilling rigs are now accident-proof, pipelines rarely break and tankers hardly ever spill or sink. In truth, the U.S. averages a decent-sized oil spill every day, under current levels of production. That figure could be much higher, as the EPA has reported in North Dakota alone about 300 pipeline spills went unreported between 2012 and 2013.
We don’t need to look any farther than the storied Yellowstone River to see the risk. It suffered a major infusion of petrochemicals following a pipeline rupture last month, contaminating the local drinking water supplies in Glendive, Montana, with cancer-causing benzene. A similar spill occurred in the Yellowstone in 2011.
An even more poignant reminder is found along the Gulf of Mexico, where, despite BP commercials to the contrary, the damage from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is far from being reversed. In fact, that spill’s damage still isn’t fully understood, as teams of state and federal trustees continue to grapple with the herculean task of tabulating the total ecological and economic damage.
Investigations like these often take a decade or more.
I just can’t believe it would seem wise to anyone — much less one of the same trustee agencies investing the Deepwater Horizon spill’s damage — to expand offshore drilling so long before we understand the full impacts of the last spill of national significance.
At about the same time oil started spewing into the Yellowstone, a federal judge in New Orleans considering BP’s liability for the Deepwater Horizon spill under the Clean Water Act finally arrived at the most credible estimate of how much oil was released into the Gulf of Mexico: 3.19 million barrels. Even if you cannot fathom just how much oil this represents, the fact it has taken almost five years from the start of the Deepwater Horizon spill to realistically calculate the volume of oil released should tell us how huge a threat offshore drilling poses.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposal for East Coast offshore drilling contains provisions that oil and gas rigs could not be located within 50 miles of the Atlantic coastline. Slightly greater than the distance between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, this may sound far, but consider it took merely two weeks for the first tarballs from Deepwater Horizon to travel about 40 miles to shore and hardly a month for beaches and marshes in multiple states to be extensively coated with oil.
The Interior Department points to prevailing winds and currents as proof any spills would be carried away from the East Coast and into the open ocean. But the National Oceanic and Oceanic Administration says differently: 72 percent of the time the prevailing winds in the region proposed for drilling blow toward the coast. Winds and currents change, occasionally several times in an hour, eradicating any guise of protection they might offer.
Open ocean environments are among the most diverse and fragile on Earth, suggesting we should protect them more strongly, not expose them to frequent oil and gas discharges.
Witness Deepwater Horizon, again. Soon after the spill, researchers documented several rare corals on the ocean floor near the wellhead in waters a mile deep to be coated in a snot-like substance that choked them to death. The more ocean floor the researchers explored in subsequent years, the more dead corals they found. This is especially troubling because scientists estimate there are hundreds, even thousands, of deepwater coral species yet to be discovered, many of which could provide the basis for intricate, deep-ocean food webs.
That we should even consider expanding actions that could dismantle unknown ocean ecosystems before we can discover them is unconscionable.
The United States is now the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas — without drilling off the fragile Atlantic or the Pacific coasts. Worldwide, the price of oil and the cost of clean energy alternatives are at near-record lows. The cost-benefit has never been better to focus our investments on renewable energy sources that move us away from our risky dependence on fossil fuels.
Oil is a finite resource and the sun is not. Perhaps this is why jobs in the American solar industry have been mushrooming at a pace 10 times faster than the nation’s average job growth, which also has been setting records.
We can create American jobs and become more energy secure without committing to risky coastal drilling.
The Interior Department will allow the public to comment on its proposal to expand East Coast drilling later this year. I urge everyone who cares about our coasts to join me in speaking out loudly against the plan.
We need to make it clear to all involved that the health and vitality of our oceans and coasts must not be sacrificed. Future generations should never have to witness Deepwater Horizon again.
U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, is a senior member of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works.