Last January, the Trump Administration announced a 5-year-plan to open up 90% of the United States’ outer continental shelf (OCS) to offshore oil drilling.
Recently, despite the shut-down of the federal government due to the impasse over the proposed border wall, the Trump Administration has called back workers in the Interior Department to work, without pay, on finalizing and moving forward the 5-year-plan, putting the oil industry above other federal government needs.
According to The Hill: “In order to comply with the Administration’s America First energy strategy to develop a new OCS Oil and Gas leasing program, work must continue toward issuing the Proposed Program per the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act requirements,” the (Interior Department’s) Bureau of Offshore Energy Management said of bringing back workers for the plan to expand drilling.
This is a huge give-away to the oil companies – precisely what they were hoping for when they backed Trump for President – and a serious danger to the ocean environment and our atmosphere.
Why is offshore oil drilling so dangerous?
OIL SPILLS, BIG AND SMALL
On April 20, 2010, we sadly became once again familiar with images of miles of brown beaches and spewing oil on the sea bottom from the blowout of the offshore oil well drilled under the Deep Water Horizon platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The well blowout caused not only an explosion that killed 11 oil workers, but also, according to the Smithsonian Institute, spewed a record estimate of 3.19 million barrels of oil (more than 130 million gallons) into the ocean before the leak was capped 87 days after the blowout occurred.
Oil spills have two damaging effects on marine life: First, the toxic portions of the oil poison a wide variety of marine life. Second, the oil itself smothers marine life, particularly reefs, but also harms the insulation provided by bird feathers and sea otter fur.
Clean up of massive oil spills is largely ineffective, as the oil spreads over miles of water, and the methods of oil removal have their own adverse impacts on marine life. For example, dispersants are frequently used to break up oil spills. More than 1.4 million gallons of dispersants of various kinds were sprayed on oil slicks around the Deepwater Horizon. The dispersants break up the oil droplets, allowing bacterial action to degrade the oil and sink out of sight, causing immeasurable harm to deep sea marine life. Furthermore, the dispersants themselves can be toxic to marine life and can enter the food chain, threatening long-term environmental health.
The difficulties of cleaning up oil spills are not limited to deep sea well blowouts. Offshore ice, such as found in the Arctic Ocean, makes oil spill clean up in such areas virtually impossible. And yet the Trump plan calls for opening up virtually all of the US coast to oil drilling, including Alaska’s coast to oil drilling.
The short-term and long-term harm to marine life from oil spills is not hypothetical. According to Reuters: “From 2002 to 2009, the Gulf averaged 63 dolphin deaths a year. That rose to 125 in the seven months after the spill in 2010 and 335 in all of 2011, averaging more than 200 a year since April 2010." The dolphin populations in the Gulf continue to be suppressed, seven years after the spill occurred. Many sea turtles died as well during the Gulf spill, and the impact on marine birds was devastating.
Another source of spilled oil comes from oil tanker accidents, such as the huge spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran up on the rocks on March 24, 1989. Television viewers from the time remember horrible images of screaming sea otters covered with oil. The local orca population was also impacted by the spill. The second largest oil spill in US waters (so far!), the tanker lost 260,000 barrels of oil (10.8 million gallons) into the pristine waters.
According to one study in 2006, in Alaska’s cold environment, an estimated 101.6 tons of oil were still found on beaches and rocks around the Prince William Sound, according to the US National Marine Fisheries Service. A study done by the agency in 2014, a quarter century after the spill, determined that some species like the sea otter had recovered, but that the orca population was still in very poor shape. Other serious spills around the world from tanker and other ship sinkings and accidents continue to plague our oceans.
The oil makes beaches smell and contaminates the feet of anyone foolish enough to walk in the stuff, often harming local recreation industries that depend on the clean beaches and ocean to attract tourists. Fisheries become contaminated, throwing fishermen out of work.
These devastating oils spills are not unique to the Gulf and Alaska. In January and February 1969, a similar blowout occurred in the Santa Barbara channel. The incredible damage done is considered one of the key events that triggered the 1970 Earth Day and brought environmental issues to the top of the public’s concerns. Now considered the third largest oil spill in US waters, about 80,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil tarred Santa Barbara’s beautiful beaches and wrought devastation to the marine environment.
These are only the most spectacular spills that catch our attention. Chronic oil spills in the ocean occur with depressing frequency. From just a few gallons, which are easily contained, to more substantial spills involving many barrels of spilled oil occur from offshore oil platforms, from broken pipelines, and from transferring of oil from platforms to tankers at sea. According to the US Department of Energy, an estimated 1.4 million gallons of oil spill into our oceans every year, mostly out of sight.
SEISMIC TESTING: ONE OF THE LOUDEST NOISES IN THE SEA
To make matters worse the damage caused by offshore oil drilling does not begin when drilling begins. Instead, the damage begins when oil companies begin prospecting by using seismic air guns, blowing incredibly loud sound into the ocean depths and sediments, to check the echoes for undersea pockets of oil and gas.
These air guns produce one of the loudest human-made noises in the ocean, and are a constant set of blasts as the ships move over the ocean area. The noise can be heard from hundreds of miles away. The blasts are repeated every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time, as the oil companies scour the seabed for possible oil strata.
Particularly vulnerable to the noise are fish and marine life directly under the air gun route at sea. In fact, a new 2017 study in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution found that zooplankton, the base of the ocean food chain, is adversely impacted by seismic air guns. After use of an air gun by scientists, zooplankton decreased by a median of 64%.
TOXIC DRILLING MUDS
Drilling muds are used to lubricate the oil drill and pumped continuously to bring debris from the drill hole to the surface of the ocean. Once used, the drill mud is often dumped into the ocean off the drilling platform. But such muds contain a witch’s brew of toxic heavy metals, including cadmium, lead, and mercury, and other contaminants, as well as smothering local reefs and marine life on the bottom. Ironically, one of the main components that is highly toxic in drilling muds is diesel fuel, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Just as oil companies are conducting fracking on land to increase oil collection, fracking is also being conducted at sea. Fracking consists of forcing very hot and toxic water mixed with chemicals under pressure into the drill holes, which fragments and breaks up the surrounding rock layers, freeing up oil that normally would not be pumped out.
Just as on land, the potential for the release of toxic fracking fluids from and into the water column is a major environmental threat. Yet, the effects have largely been unstudied so far.
Obviously, continued drilling for oil in challenging environments like the ocean is a threat not only to the marine environment, but to our Earth’s atmosphere as well, as that oil will eventually be burned in engines and contribute to greenhouse gases already shifting our climate into the red zone. Using alternative energy sources and conservation of energy will avoid the need to drill for oil in the ocean, but the Trump Administration is making things harder for alternative clean energy sources and supporting the oil and coal companies instead.
LEASING ALL AT ONCE TO PRODUCE FIRESALE PRICES
The oil offshore found in sediments along America’s coastlines rightfully belongs to the public. One way to screw the public and government coffers is to lease as much area as possible all at once, thus driving down the prices the government gets for each lease during the bidding process. The Trump Administration is not just handing out leases – they are handing out leases for the oil companies at bargain basement bids.
It should also be noted that once a lease is given to an oil company, that lease represents an agreement that the oil company can go ahead and drill for oil anytime, at their leisure. There is no easy process to end the lease by the government, should future administrations wish to go forward more prudently.
Offshore oil drilling is bad for marine life, bad for humans, and bad for the health of our planet. It should be outlawed to end the damage being done to our planet and our oceans.
Photo by Michael Nolan.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Across the US, environmentalists and coastal communities are joining to fight the Trump proposed offshore oil drilling scam. Check for meetings and demonstrations in your town!
The International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute is suing the Trump Administration to obtain information on how the Administration came to propose leasing 90% of the public’s offshore areas to oil companies, and who was involved.
Help protect our coasts, dolphins, whales and their marine habitat from offshore oil drilling. Watch our blogs for future information.
And consider a donation to IMMP’s legal and advocacy efforts to stop blasting our oceans with devastating sound and endangering whales, dolphins and their habitat with offshore oil drilling.