Is Atlantic Oil Drilling Inevitable?

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A favored torture technique in certain circles (definitely not our government—ahem) is to tie up the victim and assault him or her with a continuous, extremely loud racket. Metallica, Beethoven, Justin Bieber—it doesn’t really matter. A few hours of such treatment is enough to break a lot of people.

Now imagine you’re a whale or a dolphin. Without warning, a burst of noise hurls shockwaves through the sea. It’s deafening, bewildering. Ten seconds later, there’s a second blast. Then a third. Escape is impossible. The auditory barrage is constant, 24 hours a day, and nothing will make it stop.

Welcome to yet another grotesque effort to extend the fossil fuel era a few more decades at a massive cost to the environment. It’s called seismic airgun blasting, whereby giant sound canons towed behind ships propel compressed air through the water and into the seabed in an effort to locate oil and gas deposits. The resulting din has been measured at a piercing 190 decibels—louder than a jet engine—and it wreaks havoc on ocean fauna; sensitive hearing organs are damaged beyond repair, vital habitats abandoned, mating rituals disrupted, communication rendered impossible. Because various spots along the Atlantic coast have been targeted for offshore drilling, this lovely practice soon could be hitting close to home. While oil companies predictably claim there will be little or no environmental impact, the government says otherwise; it estimates that some 180,000 marine mammals will die and millions more will be injured or disturbed. Many of these animals are endangered, including the Atlantic Right Whale, whose vulnerable nesting grounds will take a direct hit from the sonic assault. Seismic airgun blasting could be the final blow that wipes them out.

Perpetuating this travesty just to line oil companies’ pockets is myopic and cruel, and it’s just one of many things that’s very wrong with offshore drilling. The other problems are more obvious, starting with the elephant in the room: climate change. Methane is one of the most destructive greenhouse gases, trapping 25 to 35 times more heat per ton than carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to keep this admittedly cleaner-burning fuel from seeping into the atmosphere when you drill thousands of feet beneath the waves. “There are so many leaks at various stages where gas is drilled, processed, and distributed, that if the accumulated leakage is more than one percent of the total gas handled, you’ve completely destroyed any emissions advantage over burning coal,” says David Kyler with the Center for a Sustainable Coast.

Methane isn’t all that leaks, of course. Oil does, too, sometimes prodigiously so. The Deepwater Horizon spewed millions of gallons of it into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, decimating untold millions of sea creatures. Fisheries crashed, beaches reeked, hapless birds floundered in black sludge. There’s an oil ring the size of Rhode Island on the seafloor, for crying out loud. The Gulf will probably never be the same. Big Oil says it’s learned from the disaster, but to risk such a thing again is unconscionable. Yes, more drilling would create jobs—at least until the next spill, which would wallop local economies—but so what? Almost anything creates jobs. An economy built on sustainable energy, which could employ at least as many people while preserving the planet for our grandchildren, makes far more sense. The perils of ignoring this vital transition are real and looming large.

“We on the Atlantic Coast are ground zero for climate change,” says environmental activist Bill Hamilton. “We’re already seeing effects like flooding in places like St. Augustine, and not even at high tides. Pretty much everyone except oil industry—environmentalists, ocean-front homeowners, business owners—doesn’t want off-shore drilling. We all need to take climate change seriously, and investing in new carbon fuel infrastructure is stupid.”

So stupid, in fact, that there obviously is another factor at play here: profit. Powerful forces have a lot of money at stake and are loath to walk away from a seabed shot through with black gold, regardless of the environmental and economic damage they cause to extract it.

“To take such huge risks when we know we need to do something different than use oil—someone is looking to make a short-term profit and place all of us at risk,” Hamilton says. “There’s no earthly reason to drill for oil in the Atlantic.”
As for the tired accusation that renewable energy is comparatively expensive and unreliable, that’s only because we’ve been propping up fossil fuels with giant subsidies and refusing to hold oil companies financially accountable for their rampant pollution. If you stack the deck against renewables like that, fossil fuels look pretty good. But in a fair fight, off-shore wind would beat off-shore drilling every time.

Offshore drilling along the Mid-Atlantic coast is currently prohibited. However, there are plans to lift the ban by 2017, and seismic testing to search for oil is scheduled to begin next year.

If enough people attend public meetings and otherwise express their displeasure, the Obama administration could yet change course. Hamilton also says he and other activists are trying to get a national marine sanctuary established in the Mid-Atlantic where all drilling activities are banned by definition.

“Drilling extends the era of fossil fuels by making more oil available,” Kyler says. “That doesn’t make sense when you’re trying to move to clean energy. Until the centers of power that make those decisions start thinking in the public interest instead of in the interest of Big Oil, we’re never going to get the serious policy decisions we need to address climate change.”


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