In the minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez poured 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The spill turned pristine spruce-lined waters into a sticky death trap for countless animals, including a quarter of a million birds.
Yet two decades later, the lessons of Exxon Valdez have not been learned. Our oceans and wildlife are no safer from catastrophic oil spills at a time when fossil fuel-based energy makes less sense than ever.
After Exxon Valdez, President George H.W. Bush enacted moratoria on new drilling on the outer continental shelf of the lower 48 states. An earlier Congressional moratorium on the outer continental shelf lapsed in 2008, and the second President Bush lifted the executive moratorium. This left the coasts of the Lower 48 unprotected from oil exploration.
In addition, previously inaccessible Arctic waters have proven irresistible to oil and gas speculators. Unprecedented summer ice loss due to global warming has opened the Chukchi and the neighboring Beaufort Sea to exploration and, inevitably, exploitation.
Last winter, oil companies paid a record-breaking $2.7 billion for leases to drill on 2.8 million acres in Alaska’s remote Chukchi Sea in the first federal sale on those waters since 1991. The federal government’s own plans have estimated a 40 percent chance of a major spill in the Arctic Ocean, and stated unequivocally that technology does not exist to clean up such a spill.
Despite the “Drill, baby, drill” chorus of the last election, however, offshore drilling will not help lessen our dependence on foreign oil. There is no rule saying that oil companies must sell the oil they find in U.S. waters to Americans; they will just as likely sell it to energy-hungry China. Increased offshore drilling would account for less than one percent of the current energy demand in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. It would amount to mere pennies of savings at the gas pump.
Drilling would do nothing to end our dependence on foreign oil. It would just continue our ongoing addiction.
Oil spills have already displayed, in vivid fashion, how devastating offshore drilling can be to ecosystems as well as local fishing and tourist economies. But the carbon dioxide emissions that eventually result from oil consumption are killing our oceans in a more insidious, silent manner: by causing ocean waters to become increasingly acidic and inhospitable to coral reef growth.
As carbon dioxide levels rise, marine scientists have gradually pushed up the date by which coral reefs will begin to dissolve from the end of this century to as soon as 2050.
Without coral reefs, the nurseries of the seas, oceans will become unrecognizable.
It’s not that oceans don’t represent a major source of energy. They do. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that that the North American coasts contain enough wind power to sustain America’s energy use six times over. Offshore wind could generate nearly $950 billion in economic activity and more than 250,000 jobs in the same timeframe.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has already indicated serious interest in offshore wind, speaking publicly about the need to set up rules for establishing the industry.
In the meantime, the Obama Administration and Congress should immediately reinstate the moratoria on drilling on the outer continental shelf in the Lower 48 and Bristol Bay, Alaska. They must also put a stop to the rush to drill in the Arctic until completing a full assessment of the resources at risk–including the subsistence way of life–in order to determine if oil and gas activities should occur, and if so, where, when and how.
The risks of expanded drilling to our coastal economies and to wildlife are too great, and the potential energy payoff for Americans too little, at a time when we need to be shifting to a clean energy economy.
Ninety percent of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez was never recovered. No technology exists to effectively clean up oil. We should clean up our act instead.