New Offshore Drilling Disappointments

A five-year plan for new offshore oil drilling in both the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska was released on Tuesday, November 8—the first since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet the agency that created the economic study—the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE)—failed to factor in a 4.9 million barrel spill. That’s the amount of crude oil that was released into the Gulf of Mexico last year following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And that spill—the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history—has had an ongoing devastating effect on the area’s fishery businesses and local economy. Scientists are still trying to assess the full scope of the environmental damage.

“By omitting the nation’s largest environmental disaster from is calculation of the environmental costs of drilling, BOEMRE continues to bury its head in the sand and pretend that the Deepwater Horizon accident never happened,” said Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

In its Economic Analysis Methodology, the agency states that: “BOEMRE is using the oil spill rate from the entire history of available program data, excluding DWH [Deepwater Horizon], as a rough balance between the remote chance of another DWH event and the otherwise much safer performance reflected in the more recent period.” The plan covers the years 2012 to 2017.

Oil industry officials have criticized the proposal, saying it limits oil exploration during a period when the economy is in desperate need of jobs. Environmentalists, meanwhile, are outraged by the new plan, arguing that it puts sensitive coastlines, waters and fisheries at risk in both Alaska and in the Gulf.

“Last year’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was supposed to be a wake-up call about the dangers of offshore drilling,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the panel President Obama appointed to the BP oil spill, told The New York Times that approving new drilling without ample safety measures was a “reckless gamble.”

But Interior Secretary Ken Salazr called the proposal a balance between resource development and environmental safety, while recognizing that drilling beneath 5,000 feet of water in the Gulf still has risks. He added: “We don’t believe we should open up every single place and look under every single rock in order to produce oil and gas.”

Expressing the disappointment of many green groups and concerned citizens in the Obama administration’s decision to move forward on new offshore drilling, Deirde McDonnel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “the Obama administration missed an opportunity to look at the real impacts of offshore oil drilling” and is instead “turning a blind eye to the risks.”