By Tess Engebretson
In 2008, a 25-year congressional prohibition on offshore drilling off the Atlantic coast ended, opening it up to energy exploration and poising it to be the next energy frontier. The intersection of increased energy prices and rising demand made drilling in this area an appealing endeavor, and in 2010 the Obama administration announced their intent to proceed with drilling projects off the Atlantic coast, in the Gulf, and in Alaska. A month later, in an unfortunate and telling twist of fate, a BP oil rig in the Gulf exploded, causing one of the largest environmental catastrophes in the US. The result was a seven-year suspension of all drilling activities in the Atlantic. As 2017 approaches, the discussion of offshore drilling has resurfaced, providing to be more divisive than ever. To protect our waters and move towards an energy independent future we need definitive legislation to protect against offshore drilling in the Mid and South Atlantic and refocus our efforts on clean energy technologies.
The 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf was one of the worst environmental disasters in the United States to date and the results have come to shape the future of energy exploration, regulation and infrastructure. As the moratorium on drilling nears its end and the Administration begins to develop the next ocean energy exploration plan, politicians in coastal states are pushing for reconsideration of offshore energy frontiers. Earlier this month, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released a Programmatic Environmental Impact Study (PEIS) on the effects of geophysical activity in the area and effectively advanced the national trajectory towards offshore drilling.
Politicians from coastal states are among the most vocal, and generally positive, groups. Those that share the Atlantic coast line- especially Virginia, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina- stand to bring in significant tax revenue as a result of bringing the oil industry into their states. Off-shore drilling has been equated to jobs, an economic surge, and revenue sharing.
What’s at Stake?
Environmental groups warn against moving forward where Deepwater Horizon left off, cautioning that the potential energy gains do not justify or begin to offset the significant risks. Major concerns are three fold: economic, environmental, and defense.
A 2011 Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management study found that there is less than two months supply of oil, at current rates of consumption, in the Mid- and South Atlantic combined. This crude oil must be refined into usable fuel, requiring significant infrastructure development in areas along the coast. Due to infrastructure requirements, access to the small oil supply remains years away. These refineries and pipelines emit significant amounts of oil and fumes daily, polluting the surrounding air and water.
Additionally, the areas in which drilling is being discussed are high productivity zones and are actively used for commercial fishing, outdoor recreation, and ecotourism. A 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers report concluded that, as of 2011, Virginia brings in $191,000 of seafood, making it the third largest seafood producer in the country. The same report attributed 10% of Virginia’s tourism to its beaches. The sportsman industry in these areas would be in jeopardy, putting billions of dollars and jobs at risk.
Offshore drilling poses a huge threat to land and water health in addition to habitats in these areas. Oil wells produce drilling muds that contain mercury, lead, and other toxic pollutants that contaminate the water supply and endanger organisms in these areas. It poses a notable risk to several endangered species, including the North Atlantic Right Whale. The BOEM PEIS on the effects of geophysical activity in the Atlantic and found both the use of airguns and the potential risk of a spill to have moderate impacts on marine mammals, sea turtles, marine protected areas, and coastal and marine birds.
On a practical level, the lease sale off the coast of Virginia contains areas vital to Department of Defense and NASA. According to a DOD report, 72% of the proposed area in Virginia would interfere with naval activity and thus be un-drillable. Drilling operations would also interfere with NASA activity on Wallops Island. Losses to military operations in Virginia alone could cost $1.9 billion yearly.
On the Horizon
The heart of the issue is energy supply. Technology has put us on the precipice of the new renewable energy frontier that could negate the need for dangerous, expensive and intrusive drilling projects. Institute for Local Self Reliance explains that many states, particularly in the South East, would be able to meet significant portions of their energy needs through local renewable. Ahead of the development of the administration’s plan for the next phase of energy exploration, there needs to be a community wide effort to campaign for alternative energy sources.