As Oil Reaches Coast, Offshore Plans Get Scrutiny
As about 5,000 barrels per day of leaking oil from the sunken Deepwater Horizon rig continue flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, the approximately 2,233 square mile oil slick reportedly made contact with Louisiana’s coastal islands late Thursday. President Obama called it a spill of “national significance” and deployed federal resources to assist in the response effort. This morning, the Obama administration announced that no new offshore drilling will be allowed until an investigation into the tragedy is completed.
“We have an interesting novel unfolding here. I’m worried that going forward this is turning into a tragedy on a level we haven’t seen on this planet before,” Richard Charter, Senior Policy Advisor for Marine Programs with Defenders of Wildlife, told me in a phone interview on Thursday.
The oil rig accident came at a politically unfortunate time for President Obama–about a month after his announcement on March 31 that he would allow more offshore drilling and in the midst of a controversial climate bill currently on the Congressional agenda.
Aaron Viles, Campaign Director with the Gulf Restoration Network, said Obama definitely got a lot of attention when he announced his support for offshore drilling.
“I was hoping it was April Fool’s Day,” he said. “There’s a long history of supporting oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. For any politician who continues to support offshore drilling, we need to look at their investments and campaign contributions. It’s dangerous and dirty business: 11 workers lost their lives in this tragedy.”
Charter said it has been a surprise to a lot of people who thought Obama “had an environmental ethic.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of talk radio and a number of people are calling in and asking ‘What’s with Obama?’“
During the Democratic primaries in 2008, several stories ran on Obama’s campaign contributions from oil company executives or their spouses. Various sources report these total contributions to his campaign as ranging from$128,000 to $213,000, which is smaller than that reported for Hillary Clinton and John McCain, but still significant.
“Almost every elected official gets some money from oil and gas. It’s the nature of the beast. They’re just more powerful than most Third world countries, ” Charter said.
The common wisdom has been that Obama was trading offshore concessions for Republican support on the climate bill, but Charter said it wasn’t so straight forward because the bipartisan bill being crafted by Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Joseph Liebermann (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) had increasingly become an offshore bill. He added that Cap and Trade provisions were thrown out a week ago.
“The Climate Bill is constructed in such a way to open up every coastal state to drilling by bribing states with money–revenue sharing. These days with the poor economic climate that will be very difficult for a Governor to resist.”
Obama’s “Lifting” of the Ban a Misnomer
President Obama’s decision to allow new drilling for oil and natural gas off much of the U.S. Coastline would include several states on the Atlantic seaboard and on the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Several areas would still be protected, McClatchy reported, including Alaska’s Bristol Bay. But other sensitive and controversial areas would be up for consideration. McClatchy also reported that no expanded drilling is being considered off the West Coast below Canada.
Obama calls his policy “responsible drilling as part of a larger transition toward less dependence on foreign oil and more on clean energy and greater energy efficiency.” But, mentioning one example, Charter said that by opening up the outer banks of North Carolina, “you could easily have oil from New England to Florida because of the Gulf Stream if something went wrong.”
It’s important to note that saying Obama lifted the ban is a misnomer since it was actually President George W. Bush who lifted the executive ban in July 2008. Then Congress let the legislative ban (which required annual renewal) expire on September 30, 2008 because Bush had threatened to veto an appropriations bill for government operations if it included any restrictions on offshore drilling. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) pointed this out on Thursday, saying that Obama was narrowing rather than expanding drilling.
There has been little mention of this fact in the media that I have seen until this week–or previously from bloggers trying to clarify that Obama doesn’t deserve credit for expanding offshore access.
Charter agreed the parlance shouldn’t be characterized as Obama deciding to lift the offshore ban. “It is true that President Obama took advantage of that opening and said I’m going to open several states up to 3 miles from shore for drilling and I’m going to renege on a bill that he had voted on that would protect Florida’s gulf coast out to 200 miles out of Tampa Bay,” Charter said. “That was the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act which was signed into law by Bush and stays until 2022 unless rescinded.”
Charter also said that Bush could not have actually announced offshore drilling because of the common perception that he worked for the oil companies.
According to Charter, Obama also approved the first exploratory drilling in the Arctic that will start this summer. Charter said an accident like the current one off the Louisiana coast would be much worse because no one could try to clean it up.
While multi-faceted, the debate on expanding offshore drilling centers around safety and the amount of oil that can be recovered from coastal areas. Estimates range from about 2-3 years of domestic consumption, which environmental groups say is not worth the safety and environmental risks. They also point out that limited refining capacity and global oil supplies would mean very limited impact on gas prices. And no new offshore drilling would begin for several years.
According to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 57 percent of U.S. crude oil is imported, while U.S. domestic production accounts for about 43 percent. Offshore activity, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, represents about 30% of domestic production.
“There is a pattern of big oil blowouts–small spills and fatalities, but the oil companies are good at covering it up,” Charter said. “They spend millions convincing the public that offshore drilling is safe and clean.”
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