Disastrous offshore oil policy

Posted 1/9/18

Editor's note: This editorial originally ran in the Jan. 5 edition of the Post and Courier.

In one of the most ill-considered actions of the Trump administration, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivered Thursday on the president's promise to open …

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Disastrous offshore oil policy


Editor's note: This editorial originally ran in the Jan. 5 edition of the Post and Courier.

In one of the most ill-considered actions of the Trump administration, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke delivered Thursday on the president's promise to open almost all of America's coastal waters to oil exploration and production. The decision was made despite broad opposition of coastal communities and their elected representatives at every level of government. So much for Mr. Trump's populist assurances.

The only upside to Mr. Zinke's decision is that it has created more opponents to offshore drilling. To the governors of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina can now be added Florida, whose Republican Gov. Rick Scott demanded an immediate meeting with Secretary Zinke to voice his opposition to drilling off the Florida Gulf coast. A similar protest can be expected from Maine, whose coastal waters are included for the first time in the federal drilling plan.

On the West Coast, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington are already opposed to expanded drilling. Meanwhile environmental groups are adamantly opposed to opening new Alaskan areas for drilling.

The decision followed an intense lobbying campaign by the oil industry. A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute recently criticized Atlantic coastal communities that have opposed drilling for oil, saying they were uninformed about the compatibility of offshore oil exploration, fisheries and tourism.

"What you see along the coast is a lot of exaggeration of what this could mean in terms of impact on tourism, fisheries and the coastline," said API spokesman Erik Milito in an interview with U.S. News. "We know from around the world this is certainly compatible with military exercises, with tourism, with fishing and with coastal economies in general."

That line is of a piece with petroleum industry efforts to sell offshore oil exploration as technologically advanced and posing little to no risk of oil spills and other environmental harm. Coastal residents aren't buying it.

Unfortunately, lobbyists for the API and other oil industry interest groups may also have persuaded the administration to undo safety rules in place since 2010 in response to the spectacular human and technological failures that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Department of the Interior office that regulates offshore drilling is circulating a proposal to do away with most of those rules. That should not be allowed to happen.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement sent the new, less-stringent regulations to the White House on Dec. 8, with a report estimating they would save the petroleum industry $900 billion. The BSEE is headed by Scott Angelle, a Trump appointee and former Louisiana state official, who says the federal government overreacted to the Deepwater explosion, in which 11 people died and 4.9 million barrels of oil fouled the coasts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. If anything, the government's reaction was too muted.

The blowout occurred in April 2010, and the well was still leaking two years later. The leaks had a devastating long-term effect on Gulf Coast tourism and fisheries and ongoing impacts on marine life. The damage resulted in civil suits and fines that eventually cost the well's owner, British Petroleum, roughly $60 billion.

An Obama-administration commission concluded that cost-cutting decisions and an inadequate safety system played a role in the disaster, which also reflected "systemic" flaws in the offshore drilling industry that "might well recur" in the absence of "significant reform in both industry practices and government policies."

A principal cause of the disaster, according to a federal judge overseeing claims against BP and its partners, was a human decision to cut existing safety corners. That strongly undercuts oil industry claims of safe operation. So do the anticipated ill effects of seismic testing on marine life, including the right whale, now on the verge of extinction.

Stronger regulations or not, the Atlantic coast is simply not suitable for oil and gas development. The risk to its economies and quality of life far outweighs any purported economic benefits. Rather than being uninformed, coastal communities have shown they are well aware of the inherent risks to offshore oil and gas development. As the review and comment period goes forward, coastal interests must remain adamantly opposed to the administration's drive to expand oil and gas exploration and promote offshore oil production along their shores.