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Regan Nelson’s Blog

Administration's New Plan for Drilling in Our Oceans is Too Aggressive

Regan Nelson

Posted June 28, 2012

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The Interior Department is set to release its five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan covering the period 2012 to 2017. Under this plan, the Administration will allow further leasing in the fragile Arctic Ocean and offer up new tracts in the Gulf of Mexico.  While the plan keeps the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts off-limits for leasing and drilling for the next five years, the Administration separately has started an environmental review process that could eventually lead to leasing in the mid and south Atlantic Ocean. 

Given the recent report card by the National Oil Spill Commission, which identifies the limited progress on safety and environmental protection made since the 2010 Gulf oil disaster, NRDC believes the plan is too aggressive, too broad and too rushed.

The biggest problem with the plan is the way it treats the Arctic, as NRDC’s President Frances Beinecke described yesterday

But today’s decision to continue an aggressive leasing schedule also ignores the faulty blowout preventers, and inadequate oil spill containment and clean-up capacity, which have not yet improved enough beyond what was available before the BP Gulf oil disaster. 

It was barely two years ago that the world recoiled in horror as the oil industry and government agencies struggled for five long months before permanently plugging the BP blowout in the Gulf.

And yet … too little has changed.

Congress still has not enacted a single piece of legislation to improve safety and environmental protections.  Importantly, only Congress can update laws to hold oil spill polluters responsible for paying for all of the damages incurred as a result of an oil spill. Currently, polluter's responsibility is capped at $75 million (with certain exceptions), leaving victims of a major oil spill and taxpayers to bear the costs, not the polluter, when environmental and economic damages exceed that cap.   

The Interior Department has made some important strides, including separating the leasing and environmental review functions from the safety and enforcement duties. But the administration must do a more aggressive job enforcing new safeguards.  Even Michael Bromwich, who led the Administration’s initial reform efforts, says regulators need to “step it up”.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to rely on blowout preventers with a proven design defect, making many deepwater wells subject to the same failure we saw In the Gulf.  Interior continues to talk about addressing this problem, but currently nothing has changed.

Even as we await BOEM’s announcement, two Shell Oil drilling vessels, the Kulluk and the Noble Discoverer, are sailing to Alaska to begin exploratory drilling.

And through a separate – but related – decision-making process, BOEM is evaluating whether to allow the first oil and gas seismic studies along the mid- and south-Atlantic coasts in 30 years. To survey for oil and gas, industry uses powerful air guns that release intense sonic blasts through the water column, which disperse explosive sounds that travel thousands of miles. The process disrupts the vocal behavior of endangered whales and threatens valuable commercial fish stocks.

When it comes down to it, the fundamental premise of the Administration’s leasing plan – that increased oil and gas drilling is the best way to help meet our future energy needs – is false.  We should be supporting clean, renewable energy sources and energy efficiency, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while cleaning up our air, land and waters, leading to healthier populace and a more vibrant and prosperous economy.

That should be the legacy of the BP Gulf oil disaster.

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