Offshore Drilling Off the Table in the Atlantic, but What about the Gulf and the Arctic?

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The Obama administration’s ban on offshore drilling will aid reaching the Paris climate change targets, say environmentalist Sierra Weaver of Southern Environmental Law Center and Michael LeVine of Oceana

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The Bureau of [Ocean] Energy Management released a five-year draft proposal. That proposal has taken offshore drilling in the Atlantic off the table, but keeps Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico still open for offshore drilling. The Atlantic drilling ban is being celebrated by environmentalists as a victory after an intense campaign with more than 100 coastal communities involved in petitions and resolutions, asking the Obama administration to shut down plans for new drilling. The plan previously under consideration proposed opening the Atlantic Ocean all the way from Virginia through to Georgia to oil and gas leases. The Department of Defense has also got in on this, and recently came out against Atlantic drilling, saying that drilling would interfere with the Navy’s activities along the coast.

Now with us to discuss all of this is Sierra Weaver. She’s joining us from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Michael LeVine. He’s joining us from Juneau, Alaska. Sierra Weaver is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. Weaver has been responsible for coordinating SELC’s regional efforts opposing drilling off the southeast coast. And Michael LeVine is Pacific senior council for Oceana. At Oceana, LeVine works on science-based management of large marine ecosystems. I thank you both for joining us today.

MICHAEL LEVINE: Thank you for having us.

SIERRA WEAVER: Yes, thank you.

PERIES: So let me start with you, Sierra, first, because the campaign to stop drilling offshore in the Atlantic, you have worked hard on that. And now you have some sort of a success. So what is in the proposal, and also in terms of taking it off the table, and also in terms of your efforts to get it off the table? Describe to us what actually took place.

WEAVER: Sure. So, last January the Obama administration proposed to open the southeast United States to offshore oil and gas leasing for the first time in over 30 years. So there hasn’t been oil and gas production on the East Coast of the United States at a commercial scale, ever. So this is a major shift in federal policy, and it caused coastal communities up and down the southeast coast, as you said, from Virginia down through Georgia, to be very concerned about what this could mean for their coastal communities, including for their economies that are based largely on tourism and fishing.

So what you’ve seen over the past year is a real movement on the southeast coast, from the time when these communities first learned that drilling might be coming to their shores, through the passage of over 100 resolutions opposing offshore drilling, to decision that we got earlier this week. So I think folks up and down the coast are overjoyed about this news, and hopefully going to the beach to enjoy their unspoiled environment.

PERIES: And Sierra, we don’t often find environmentalists and the Department of Defense on the same side of things. Why are they opposing the offshore drilling?

WEAVER: Yeah, so the Department of Defense has actually expressed concerns about any potential oil and gas leasing in the Atlantic, and especially off the coast of Virginia, since about 2010. So they’ve been very clear, actually, that this would conflict with their operations off the southeast United States. And what the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, the federal agency that governs leasing, said yesterday is that these operations off the coast of Virginia have only increased over last five years, and Department of Defense has now identified the entire state of Virginia and the waters offshore Virginia as a concern for conflicting with Navy operations.

So yes, the Obama administration cited that as one of the reasons for pulling the region out of the program. They also cited a lot of other reasons and other sources of opposition as well.

PERIES: Now, Michael, let me go to you. Now, the Arctic is not being taken off the table. Your reaction to that?

LEVINE: Sure. I’d begin with a hearty thank you to Secretary Jewell and the rest of the Obama administration for protecting the Atlantic coast, along with Sierra and her organization and others, Oceana helped rally the support along the coast, from communities, businesses, and others, to have the Atlantic taken off. So certainly we begin with a big thank you for listening to that constituency.

In the Arctic we were disappointed but not surprised to find lease sales proposed in both the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These proposals come despite the fact that companies have not yet used the leases they already own there, and and walking away from investments they made in the 2000s. Just in the past year more than 100 leases have been relinquished in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and we are currently on the downward cycle of the second big boom and bust in the Arctic. From where we sit there seems to be little compelling reason to offer additional leases in either the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas.

PERIES: Right. And Michael, last week Trudeau from Canada and President Obama met, and two countries that obviously has interest in the Arctic. And they made a statement. Let’s have a look.

BARACK OBAMA: I’m especially pleased to say the United States and Canada are fully united in combating climate change. As the first United States president to visit the Arctic, I saw how both of our nations are threatened by rising seas, melting permafrost, disappearing glaciers and sea ice. And so we are focusing on making sure the Paris agreement is fully implemented.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The president and I have announced today that we’ll take ambitious action to reduce methane emissions nearly by half from the oil and gas sector, reduce use and emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, and implement aligned greenhouse gas emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles, amongst other plans to fight climate change.

PERIES: So, Michael, it’s good to have the two making such declarations. But what is the current status of offshore drilling in Alaska, and in the Arctic as a whole? And give us somewhat of a status report.

LEVINE: Sure. The announcement made by Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama is a great step for international collaboration, and we are heartened by the commitment to taking meaningful action to address climate change.

Right now, there are leases owned in federal waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Those leases were purchased in sales that were held between 2003-2008. Only one exploration well has been drilled on those leases. That was by Shell last year. And the company announced that it’s going to stop exploration for the foreseeable future. As of right now there is no production, and there is no proposed drilling in the Chukchi Sea, or in areas in which leases are owned further offshore in the Beaufort Sea.

Really, in order to stay consistent with the commitment to address climate change we ought not be committing further resources, and ought not be selling additional leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas at this time.

PERIES: Now, one very historic spill in Alaska was, of course, the Valdez spill. Give us a sense of what the aftereffects of that spill has been, and are we still suffering from it?

LEVINE: Sure. We’re coming up on the 27th anniversary of that spill here later this month. The spill devastated the coastal ecosystems around Prince William Sound. And still, nearly 30 years later, there is oil under the sand on the beaches. The fisheries have not recovered in a lot of those places. And we in Alaska take the Exxon Valdez oil spill as a very serious cautionary tale. And we are very concerned about the risks of potential activities, especially in remote and unforgiving ecosystems like the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. We’re talking about the potential for operations more than 1,000 miles from the nearest Coast Guard facilities, in places that are subject to darkness, bad weather, wind, and in which there is no proven way to respond to spilled oil.

PERIES: Now, Sierra, let me go to you. Of course, no one can forget the BP oil spill disaster that President Obama inherited, which happened about, I guess, six years ago. Considering that this is the largest marine oil spill accident in history, what does this current proposed plan say about that, and will the drilling in the Gulf of Mexico continue?

SIERRA: So, all indications from the release yesterday are that Gulf of Mexico oil drilling will continue. We were really focused on the southeast Atlantic more than what’s going on in the Gulf, again, because there hadn’t been drilling in the Atlantic previously.

But one thing to note is that just last week, even before this new plan was announced, the Government Accountability Office did an investigation and found that a lot of the safety requirements and recommendations that had been put forth after the BP oil spill still had not been complied with. So even in the places where oil drilling is going to proceed, even in the places that have seen oil drilling in the past, we apparently have not learned our lessons from our past spills and moved forward to address drilling and make sure it can be done in a safe manner. So I think that is important for everyone to know, no matter what coast they’re interested in.

PERIES: Right. And then, Michael, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says that the leases of Alaska are still in review. Talk about the impact drilling would have on local communities, biodiversity, and of course the larger picture in terms of climate change that this would contribute to.

LEVINE: Sure. The, the proposal is definitely still under review, and we remain hopeful that the Department of the Interior will remove the scheduled sales from the final program when it’s released later this year.

There are several things to say about that, and first is that independent of whether companies ever operate in the Arctic Ocean, it’s important to know where the important places are for future planning. And this plan actually does some good things in that regard, identifying what they call important environmental areas and asking for additional information about that. So it’s not all bad. There are some good things, even in the Arctic.

More specifically to your question, the risks of operating in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas are dramatic. And if something were to go wrong, there is no way to respond to spilled oil. And especially in light of the current economic climate there appears to be little interest in pursuing oil in these remote, difficult places. If President Obama–.

PERIES: Is that because of price of oil, or is it because of heightened awareness in terms of environmental impacts?

LEVINE: There’s probably not an easy answer to that question. I don’t work for an oil company, so I wouldn’t be able to speculate entirely. I would guess that it’s a combination of all of those things, including the fact that if there really is oil in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas, it’s very difficult to find. It would be very difficult to produce. And there are a lot of environmental and financial risks simply inherent in trying to go and find it. Shell found that out the hard way, having spent more than $7 billion to purchase leases and pursue exploration only to be unsuccessful, and end up with little to show for that endeavor other than a big financial loss, and a near disaster in 2012 when its drilling rig crashed near Kodiak.

But also, I would add to this that truly meaningful action to address climate change does include emissions, and we’re glad to see the coming methane rules and other emissions controls rules, but it also involves making a meaningful switch to a sustainable energy economy. And until and unless there’s a plan in place to figure out how we’re going to do that we should not be encouraging oil exploration and development in remote and unforgiving places like the Arctic.

PERIES: Right. And Sierra, the last question to you. What is next in terms of moving forward and your advocacy in terms of the draft agreement? You have one victory under your belt, what’s next?

WEAVER: So, for the southeast this should be end of the road. From everything the Obama administration has said this is a winnowing process, so they will not be re-introducing areas or introducing areas that aren’t currently on the table as this plan moves forward. So I think for the southeast folks are considering this a really big victory, and we’re moving on to other things right now, other threats to the southeast coast. Because of course, we need to be doing everything we can to protect our beaches and marshes down here.

PERIES: Sierra Weaver, Michael LeVine, thank you so much for joining us.

LEVINE: Thank you for having us.

WEAVER: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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