Commentary: It’s time for a low-carbon energy economy

If this dangerous offshore plan moves ahead, we can expect decades of more catastrophic oil spills, hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires. By Rick Steiner For The Cordova Times

Activists from the ShellNo Action Council meet Shell's Arctic Drilling Rig in Port Angeles.

Nowhere is the Trump administration’s historic assault on our natural environment more worrisome than his reckless push for increased offshore oil and gas drilling. The administration’s new 5-year oil plan released Jan. 4 opens most U.S. waters to leasing, including Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The plan, which calls for 19 lease sales off Alaska, risks disaster for oceans and climate.

At a time when science says that to stabilize global climate two-thirds of all fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, Trump is instead pushing a huge increase in fossil fuel production, onshore and offshore. Expanded drilling, weakened agency oversight, relaxed safety regulations, and oil companies now with more available cash from tax cuts is a “perfect storm” for increased risk of climate disasters and oil spills.

If this dangerous offshore plan moves ahead, we can expect decades of more catastrophic oil spills, hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires.

In addition to the oil and gas already in production offshore, the U.S. offshore seabed may hold another 90 billion barrels of oil and 400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or more. But burning this amount of fossil fuel would add more than 50 billion tons of CO2 to the global atmosphere, a “carbon bomb” comparable to the Alberta tar sands. And much of this CO2 would be reabsorbed into seawater, increasing ocean acidification.

The administration’s offshore drilling plan would commit us to another several decades of carbon-intensive energy production, delay our transition to sustainable low-carbon energy, and guarantee future climate and oil spill chaos. But Trump and friends see billions of dollars lying in the seabed, and ignore the inconvenient climate truth. This could be “game over” for efforts to control climate change and protect our oceans.

To appreciate the threat from Trump’s proposed offshore oil rush, just connect the dots between his policy decisions to date.

Launching his vision of “deconstructing the administrative state,” Trump issued as one of his first executive orders: “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs,” ordering agencies to review (read: weaken or eliminate) hundreds of federal rules and regulations, and requiring that for every new regulation adopted two must be eliminated. Then, his March executive order: “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” ordered agencies to review (weaken or eliminate) existing energy regulations and policies “that potentially burden the production or use of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources.”

In response, the Interior department is currently reviewing offshore drilling safety regulations put in place by the Obama administration after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, including blowout preventer and well control requirements (well design, control, casing, cementing, monitoring and subsea containment), safety and environmental management systems, and emergency blowout response plans. The administration is widely expected to give industry exactly what it wants — a relaxation of many of these drilling safeguards. Just last week (Dec. 29, 2017) the Interior department proposed to amend the 2016 offshore production safety system rule in order to “reduce certain unnecessary regulatory burdens.” The next Deepwater Horizon disaster now seems virtually inevitable.

Then, the April executive order: “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” proposed a historic expansion of offshore drilling, including in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, Alaska, Pacific and potentially even in National Marine Sanctuaries. Trump canceled previous Obama offshore lease withdrawals (protections) in the Arctic and Atlantic, making these areas available for drilling, and eased permit requirements for seismic exploration.

In response, the Interior Department released on Jan. 4 its new five-year offshore leasing plan (2019-2024) — one of the largest offshore oil leasing plans in the nation’s history, and one that goes far beyond the current Obama five-year plan (which in itself was bad enough). Even under the existing plan, the Trump administration has announced it will offer for lease in March “all available unleased areas on the Gulf’s Outer Continental Shelf,” some 77 million acres across the entire Gulf, including waters off the Florida coast that had previously been protected. With the new expanded five-year plan, the Trump administration says it wants not just energy independence, but “American energy dominance,” and to “export American energy all over the world.”

As another gift to industry, the administration proposed cutting $54 billion in federal spending, largely from environment agencies including EPA, NOAA, NASA and Interior. While Congress has yet to pass a new budget, now with a huge tax cut to pay for, it has a convenient excuse to approve many of these proposed cuts.

And the administration quietly allowed the 9-cent-per-barrel federal tax that funds the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund to lapse on Dec. 31 (a $500 million a year gift to oil companies), suspended a study by the National Academy of Sciences on improving offshore drilling inspections, and ignored calls to establish regional citizens advisory councils for the Arctic and Gulf of Mexico that would provide citizen oversight of offshore drilling.

Expanded offshore leasing, weakened regulations, reduced agency oversight, marginalized citizens, ignored science, and huge tax cuts for oil companies ― when taken together, present unprecedented and unacceptable risk to our oceans and climate.

If we genuinely care about the ocean, we should not expose it to the risks from offshore drilling ― period. Major spills will occur, they cannot be cleaned up, they can cause long-term environmental damage, and ecological restoration is impossible. Further, global climate cannot afford the additional carbon that would be produced offshore, and much of this carbon would wind up right back in the seas as absorbed CO2, increasing ocean acidification. Offshore drilling is a lose-lose proposition, and the entire proposed 5-year offshore oil lease plan should be withdrawn.

Instead, we need to accelerate efforts to kick our carbon habit, and get on with the hard, yet inevitable work of building a sustainable, low-carbon energy economy.

Sheik Zaki Yamani, former Saudi Arabian oil minister, once said: “The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Our ancestors invented a smarter way to live. Now it’s our turn. 

Rick Steiner is a marine conservation biologist living in Anchorage whose Oasis Earth project focuses on local and regional solutions to the environmental crisis. Prior to establishing Oasis Earth he spent three decades as a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska.

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