Oil and Water Don’t Mix

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Southeast Moves to Block Offshore Oil Drilling in the Atlantic

If there is any silver lining to the Gulf oil spill—the worst environmental disaster in American history—it is that Americans are finally taking a closer look at the dangers of offshore drilling.

While the Gulf of Mexico is currently home to all of America’s offshore drilling sites, (leased from the federal government by private companies like BP), the Bush administration ended a 25-year moratorium on drilling along the Eastern Seaboard in 2008 and offered drilling leases along the coast of Virginia.

Then, just weeks before the Gulf spill, Obama announced he would carry through with the Virginia leases and open more of the coastline in the South and Mid-Atlantic to drilling. After the Gulf spill, Obama backpedaled, immediately putting the leases on hold.

“I think these lease sites will get a tremendous amount of scrutiny now,” says Derb Carter, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in North Carolina.

More scrutiny is exactly what the Southern Environmental Law Center is calling for. The organization has brought a lawsuit against the federal government for a lack of oversight in deep water oil leases. For the past several years, the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency in charge of policing offshore drilling, has simply granted exploratory well projects categorical exclusion from any environmental review during the exploratory phase.

“They’ve essentially given all these deepwater wells operating in the gulf an environmental waiver, because the oil companies have assured them that an accident like this couldn’t happen,” says Catherine Wannamaker, SELC’s lead attorney in the case against the Minerals Management Service. “As each of these wells advanced from leasing to exploration to actual drilling, there was less and less environmental oversight from the federal government.”

While the federal government regroups, states in the Southeast are doubling their efforts to stop offshore drilling in the Atlantic. Virginia’s state legislature is hoping to repeal its approval of offshore drilling in January. In North Carolina, legislators recently passed a law that will repeal a liability cap for oil spills and strengthen the state’s coastal management standards. State representatives in Florida are drafting a constitutional amendment that would ban drilling off the coast of Florida entirely.

But not even a catastrophe as monstrous as the Gulf spill has silenced the “drill, baby, drill” chants. While the oil leases off the Atlantic coast have been put on hold, they haven’t been taken off the auction block completely. Virginia’s Governor, Mitch McDonnell, is still pushing for drilling off his own coast, telling The Washington Post recently, “We will learn from Louisiana. We will have additional federal regulations. We will have new technology. Once we get some of those things fixed…then we can move forward.”

Many of the potential well sites would have to be deep water sites, just like the Deep Water Horizon well in the Gulf. A spill of that magnitude would decimate the Southern fishing and tourism economy, which generates billions in revenue and hundreds of thousands of jobs. According to the Department of the Interior, the Atlantic is even more vulnerable to an oil spill because of its extensive coastal lowlands and strong currents. If a spill takes place in the defined Virginia lease site, the Atlantic currents would likely carry most of the oil into the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where tourism alone provides over 30,000 jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue.

Blowin’ in the Wind?
A June 2009 study by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found that shifting $150 billion in government and private investment from fossil fuels to clean energy technology would create an estimated 1.7 million jobs in America in the next decade, including more than 44,000 jobs in Virginia, 51,210 in North Carolina, 24,757 in South Carolina, and 58,816 in Georgia, significantly more than offshore drilling’s best estimates (the oil industry estimates drilling off the coast of Virginia would create 3,000 to 15,000 jobs).

Because of the potential economic boon of offshore wind, wind projects are gaining traction in the region. Virginia has some of the most abundant offshore wind potential in the Mid-Atlantic. The total potential wind resources off the coast of Virginia could generate enough electricity to power over 15 million homes a year, more energy than the state of Virginia currently uses. In June, Virginia joined the Atlantic Offshore Wind Energy Consortium, which promotes the development of wind energy off the Atlantic Coast, including a large farm proposed for 12 to 15 miles off Virginia’s coastline.

Less than sixty days’ worth.

The first of the Atlantic leases is located 50 miles off shore between Virginia Beach and Ocean City. The lease area forms a triangle covering three million acres. According to Minerals Management Service (MMS), there are 130 million barrels of oil and 1,140 billion cubic feet of natural gas within the lease zone, which at current U.S. consumption rates equals roughly six days of oil and 18 days of natural gas. The lease sites off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia haven’t been defined yet, but the MMS estimates that there are 1.15 billion barrels of oil and 11.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas to be found off the Mid and South Atlantic coasts altogether. At current U.S. consumption rates, that boils down to less than two months worth of oil.

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