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President Obama must reinstate moratorium on offshore drilling

by Mike Gaworecki

April 30, 2010

Yesterday, White House energy advisor Carol Browner made it very clear that President Obama remains committed to opening new areas of America’s coastlines to drilling for oil, despite the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Lessons from the BP Deepwater Disaster, which continues to spew as much as 5,000 barrels of oil — 200,000 gallons — into the Gulf every day, will be “folded in” to the Interior Department’s review of new leases, she said.

This morning, however, White House senior advisor David Axelrod was on TV saying that in the wake of this catastrophic oil spill, "All [President Obama] has said is that he’s not going to continue the moratorium on drilling but… no additional drilling has been authorized and none will until we find out what happened here and whether there was something unique and preventable here."

Greenpeace image: oil spill in Gulf
Wednesday, April 28, 2010 – A view of the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana where oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread. Ships work on containing the oil on the surface of the water, which could make landfall as early as today. Photo by Sean Gardner/Greenpeace

That’s certainly welcome news, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. President Obama needs to reinstate the moratorium on offshore drilling to ensure a disaster like this doesn’t threaten any more coastal communities and ecosystems. Because despite assurances from the oil industry that new technologies have made “accidents” that result in oil spills less likely, the BP Deepwater Disaster shows that’s simply not true. It’s not a matter of if another spill will occur, but when — and where.

Unfortunately, Shell has already been awarded a lease to do exploratory drilling in 2.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea, off of Alaska’s northern coast, within prime hunting grounds for the Inupiat people and a critical migration route for endangered bowhead whales. Shell just received a key permit for the project from the EPA last month, and plans to go ahead with drilling there this summer even though this is a very fragile ecosystem where conditions would make cleanup so difficult that the Coast Guard has described a major oil spill there as a “nightmare scenario” that it does not have the capacity to deal with.

The Gulf, by contrast, may be the one place on earth where authorities are prepared to deal with oil spills, with plenty of manpower and spill response equipment close at hand. We’ve seen how difficult it has actually been over the past week, though, as all attempts to stop the spill from making landfall have so far failed. I shudder to think what it would mean if this had happened in the remote, pristine waters of the Arctic.

Greenpeace image: oil spill in Gulf
A ship cuts through some of the oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico after a BP-leased oil platform exploded on April 20 and sank after burning. Eleven workers are missing and presumed dead. Photo by Sean Gardner/Greenpeace

The Obama administration’s commitment to offshore drilling amounts to no less than a decision to endanger our coastal ecosystems with the risk of catastrophic oil spills, which is especially worrisome because there seems to be little to no commitment from companies like BP and Transocean, who leased the Deepwater Horizon oil rig to BP, to prevent oil spills like this from occurring. Transocean actually lobbied the Minerals Management Service, which oversees the lease of our coastal waters to oil companies who do the drilling, to exempt the Deepwater Horizon rig from certain safety requirements because it was a “marvel of modern technology” and, according to the company, virtually immune from a spill of this magnitude. Yeah, not so much, Transocean.

Unfortunately, President Obama seems all too willing to swallow the oil industry’s lies and distortions hook, line, and sinker, even to the point that he’s repeated the myth that Hurricane Katrina didn’t cause any oil rig spills because oil rigs these days are simply too darn fail-safe. In defending his plan to open our coastlines to drilling, Obama said, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They are technologically very advanced. Even during Katrina, the spills didn’t come from the oil rigs, they came from the refineries onshore.” Yeah, not so much, Mr. President.

Hopefully the very real catastrophe we are witnessing in the Gulf will open our president’s eyes to the reality of the oil industry, and he will act in time to prevent this from happening in the Chukchi Sea as well. No matter how the industry’s PR machine spins it, oil is intrinsically a dirty business, and there is no technological fix for that fact. President Obama needs to reinstate the moratorium on offshore drilling immediately and take decisive action to replace dangerous and dirty fossil fuels with safe and clean renewable energy.

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