This story has been updated.
Just two days before the six-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, federal regulators held a public forum in a suburb of New Orleans on a draft environmental analysis of the Obama administration’s five-year plan to lease out large parcels of the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic seas for offshore oil and gas drilling.
Offshore drilling opponents found it ironic that officials decided to hold the forum so close to the anniversary of the worst oil spill in the nation’s history, and protesters held a rally outside the meeting as the federal regulators waited to greet them with informational packets inside. In March, dozens of protesters interrupted a lease auction at the Superdome in New Orleans, and local police kept a heavy presence at the public forum.
Six years ago today, a blowout preventer failed on BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, causing an explosion that killed 11 crew members and ruptured an undersea oil well. More than 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf as the well leaked for weeks, and residents of the Gulf Coast say the impacts of the spill are still being felt today.
Just two weeks ago, a federal court in New Orleans approved a $20 billion settlement between BP and the five Gulf Coast states that suffered the brunt of the spill’s environmental damage. Environmentalists criticized the settlement for allowing BP to write most of the money off its taxes as regular business expenses.
Louisiana, where sensitive wetlands already under pressure from the oil and gas industry were heavily contaminated with oil after the spill, will receive at least $6.8 billion of the payout, according to state officials.
Five More Years of Offshore Drilling Leases
The draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that was on display in New Orleans on Monday details the potential environmental impacts of a federal proposal to lease plots of Gulf and Arctic waters to private energy firms at five auctions held from 2017 to 2022. Federal law requires officials to take comments from the public before finalizing environmental statements on proposed projects and deciding if they can move forward.
The document, which spans two volumes and hundreds of pages, attempts to predict how another “catastrophic discharge event” like the BP spill would harm Gulf and Arctic environments. However, it also states that another massive spill is “unexpected” and “unlikely to occur,” even if the offshore lease auctions are held as planned. Last week, federal regulators issued new regulations designed to make offshore drilling safer despite opposition from energy companies, which argue the rules will also make production more expensive.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration recently scrapped a proposal to open federal waters in the Atlantic to offshore drilling after the plan came under heavy public scrutiny on the politically powerful East Coast. The decision was a victory for environmentalists and climate advocates, and they are now demanding the government spare the Gulf and Arctic from new leases as well.
“The industry has never listened and now we see another way. We are inspired by the victory against drilling on the Atlantic Coast,” said Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice group that organized the rally. “So we’re telling Big Oil to take their rigs and go home.”
The Obama administration has been reluctant to restrict offshore drilling, even in the years following the BP spill, but that doesn’t mean the executive branch doesn’t have power in this realm. In fact, environmentalists say the next president could suspend the offshore leasing program on day one in office.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has promised to do just that and ban onshore drilling on public lands, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has proposed vague reforms to the leasing program. The Republican candidates support the programs outright.
Impacts to Wildlife and People
Offshore drilling can have many different impacts on the environment, ranging from wastewater discharge to an increase in ship traffic. Some impacts could be compounded by the effects of climate disruption, such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification, according to the draft EIS. Oil spills remain the “greatest concern” for regulators, but only small spills with negligible impacts are “expected” to occur.
The EIS lays out how spills of different sizes may harm the environment and marine life, such as birds, dolphins and sea turtles, but concludes that humans would suffer most “major” impacts of a spill, including the loss of subsistence resources and cultural identity as well as damage to physical and psychological health.
These communities include remote Inupiat villages in Alaska as well as the same Gulf communities that suffered six years ago, thanks to a sharp post-spill decline in tourism and the fishing industry. A list of industrial activities associated with offshore drilling, ranging from pipeline trenching to construction projects, are also expected to impact those living nearby, raising environmental justice concerns.
Offshore drilling opponents are not just worried about pollution and spills; they argue the government must keep the fossil fuel reserves under its control in the ground if the United States is to do its part to curb climate disruption. In the Gulf and Arctic, the same coastal communities impacted by offshore drilling are also expected to be some of the first to experience the consequences of climate disruption.
Outside the public forum on the draft statement, protesters chanted “keep it in the ground” and called on President Obama to end the offshore drilling program and facilitate a “just transition” away from fossil fuels.
“Today we are here to ask the Obama administration to keep it in the ground and stand with our movement … and not with the fossil fuel industry,” said Jennifer Crosslin, an activist who traveled from Biloxi, Mississippi, to attend the forum.
When it comes to assessing fossil fuels’ effects on the climate, the draft EIS offers a limited scope. The report only considers climate-warming emissions created by offshore drilling operations, such as accidental methane releases from natural gas wells. It does not consider the impacts that the oil and gas produced by offshore drilling will have once they are taken onshore and burned as fuel.
“That’s not what this agency does, we’re focused on what happens offshore,” said Eric Wolvovsky, a meteorologist for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), one of two federal agencies that regulate offshore drilling. He added that offshore drilling regulators don’t know how fossil fuels produced offshore will be used onshore. Oil, for example, could be burned as fuel or used to make products like Vaseline.
The BOEM expects to finalize the EIS by the end of the year and decide in early 2017 whether to continue with the proposed leasing program, to continue the program with extra protections for environmentally sensitive areas or to cancel the offshore leasing auctions altogether.
A public comment period is open until May 2, and you can read the EIS and submit comments here.