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How long do you think it would take to overlook the worst offshore oil spill in history, one that lasted 87 days during which 4 million barrels spewed into the Gulf of Mexico? Recent moves by the federal government point to the answer being 13 years.
On April 20, two days before Earth Day, we’ll mark the 13th anniversary of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 workers and started an ecological disaster that lasted longer than the nearly three months as oil poured into the sea.
Despite billions directed at mitigation, we still see the devastating impact — in increased erosion and damaged plant life in the Gulf Coast’s disappearing wetlands, in marine life from dolphins to coral, in the health issues experienced by those who worked on the clean-up.
Yet the Interior Department in late March opened most of the remaining parts of the central and western Gulf along that same coastline to oil and gas extraction through the sale of drilling leases. The Sierra Club joined other environmental groups to challenge the decision, made based on a flimsy impact review that found that burning a billion barrels of oil and 4.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that could be pulled from the area won’t damage the climate.
Beyond colliding with the Deepwater Horizon anniversary, the sale came in the same month that the federal government approved the Willow project to drill across a huge swath of the Alaskan tundra and the U.N.’s climate change panel asserted that the planet can’t afford any more oil wells.
The administration’s excuse for selling leases was that the historic clean energy package approved last year demanded it. But that deal cut with fossil fuel champions in Congress didn’t demand that an area the size of Italy be put on the auction block or prescribe an outcome for the sale.
Big Gas and Oil’s protectors in Congress say more drilling means lower gas prices and less dependence on foreign oil. Not any time soon — it’s typically at least a four-year turnaround from a lease to oil flowing. Only a quarter of U.S. oil production comes from federal lands and waters, and there are thousands of existing leases that aren’t in production. In the Gulf alone, there’s extraction from only a quarter of the leases sold before last month.
The real brake on more drilling is investors’ hesitancy to pursue it. Oil companies have enjoyed record profits and turned them back into shareholder dividends, not exploration. Recent leases for offshore wind power have sold for far higher amounts than recent oil and gas leases. The markets are placing bets on the future of our warming planet.
None of us can escape the dire effects of continuing to feed the addiction to fossil fuels for decades with Gulf leases and Willow. The greatest impact will continue to be borne by those with the least power and most at risk, the same poor communities and people of color who get crushed by severe weather from climate deterioration and who live in cancer alleys on the Mississippi River polluted by refineries. Those same places, a study by Robert Bullard at Texas Southern University found, are where most waste from the 2010 spill ended up in landfills.
The greatest risk may be to fewer than 50 remaining Rice’s whales recently discovered living in the Gulf. We’re careening toward the first human-caused extinction of a large whale in history.
If the calculation to offer the leases was political, it probably winds up a subtraction equation. The new drilling won’t happen quickly enough to lower prices soon. But it may be enough to weaken the enthusiasm of most American voters who said climate is an issue that determines if and how they vote.
Looking ahead, the Interior Department is writing a new five-year plan for offshore drilling. The planet can’t afford a U-turn from the leadership shown by rejoining the Paris agreement and pushing through infrastructure and clean energy packages that will spend more on a healthier Earth powered by abundant energy than we spent sending astronauts to the Moon. That five-year plan should be short and borrow a line from President Biden in his last campaign. No more drilling. Period.
Ben Jealous is incoming executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.