Fifty years ago, no one questioned whether it made sense to drill for oil or dig for coal. Extracting any and all fossil fuels was accepted practice because that was the cheapest, easiest way to get energy. And for a while, it worked.
But that was then. Today, as the Interior Department prepares to release a new draft of a five-year plan (2017–2022) for oil and gas leases off our coastlines, it’s time to recognize how much has changed. This is not 1966 — or even 2006. So why does this draft plan read as if the rags-to-oil-rich Beverly Hillbillies were still on the air?
The proposed plan for the U.S. outer continental shelf would actually add 10 new leases in the Gulf of Mexico and in America’s Arctic, while also offering a lease for drilling off of the mid-Atlantic coast from Virginia to Georgia.
Here some of the reasons why that makes no sense in 2016:
First, we already know that we can’t develop all of our proven fossil fuel reserves if we want to avoid truly catastrophic climate disruption. In fact, 80 percent of those reserves need to stay in the ground. The last thing we should be doing is looking for new oil and gas reserves that we can’t afford to burn.
Second, by now it’s clear that — magical thinking aside — “safe and responsible” offshore drilling is a fantasy. The Gulf of Mexico is still suffering the effects of BP’s massive blowout five years ago. If a disaster like that one were to happen in the Arctic, the consequences would be at least an order of magnitude worse. As for the Atlantic, perhaps the only good thing to come of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was that it caused President Obama to cancel plans to open the outer continental shelf off the East Coast to drilling.
Third, oil use is actually declining in the U.S., and that’s a trend we need to encourage. You don’t do that by looking for risky new places to drill. That goes double for environments like the Arctic and mid-Atlantic, where a single disaster would be so devastating.
Finally, our outer continental shelf does have a role to play in providing energy — but not by subjecting it to dangerous drilling. The more than 1.5 million acres off the Atlantic coast that have already been designated for wind energy development could generate enough electricity to power more than five million homes. That’s where we should be investing — not in new potential mega-disasters. Currently, of the more than 3,000 offshore wind turbines in the world, not a single one is spinning above U.S. waters.
We’re already seeing a transition to clean, renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. President Obama knows that the only way to build on the progress and promise of the Paris climate summit is to accelerate that transition and base our fossil fuel policy on the mandate to “keep it in the ground” whenever and wherever possible. On that basis, we should be finding ways to scale back offshore drilling, not expand it. President Obama has an opportunity to further cement his climate and energy legacy by consigning offshore drilling to the past and focusing on bold visions of the future, such as his just-announced proposal to invest $300 billion over the next decade in a 21st-century clean transportation system. We’re heading toward the future whether we like it or not — it’s time to plan accordingly.