OPINION: Offshore oil plan could be 'game over' for climate
New leasing program would commit U.S. to 40 years of carbon-intensive energy that world climate cannot afford
In a move that could rival the climate impacts of the Alberta tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline, and would release far more atmospheric carbon than that saved by the new EPA power plant and vehicle rules, the Obama administration just initiated its 2017-2022 process to expand oil and gas drilling on the nation's outer continental shelf (OCS) — including the Arctic, Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico. The initial public comment period on the plan closes July 31, 2014.
Despite the fact that many of the 2011 National Oil Spill Commission's recommendations to improve offshore drilling safety have yet to be implemented, and the certainty of more oil spills, this new leasing program would commit the nation to another 40 years of carbon-intensive energy that world climate cannot afford.
In addition to the proven offshore reserves already in production (currently providing 18 percent of domestic oil and 5 percent of domestic gas production), the government estimates that the U.S. OCS contains an additional 90 billion barrels of oil and 400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas yet to be discovered. Industry thinks there is more. History shows that once oil is discovered, it will be produced.
Burning this much oil and gas would release over 60 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere — a "carbon bomb" almost as large as the entire Alberta tars sands. Just as with the tar sands (with 168 billion barrels of proven reserves), producing this U.S. offshore oil could be "game over" for efforts to contain climate change. And this offshore carbon would dwarf the one or two billion tons of CO2 saved by the new power plant and vehicle rules by 2030.
Without doubt, the combined carbon from offshore oil (in the U.S. and other nations), and tar sands oil, would be disastrous for climate. But industry sees billions of dollars lying in the seabed, and seems to care little about climate impacts.
If we want to stabilize climate and secure a sustainable future, the carbon now safely buried beneath the seabed, just as in the tar sands, should be left right where it is - buried. In fact, a landmark 2013 study by the Carbon Tracker Initiative in the U.K. concluded that, in order to avoid climate warming exceeding the critical target of 2 degrees Celsius, two-thirds of world's remaining hydrocarbon reserves must be left in the ground. That study, co-authored with the London School of Economics, warns that in the coming decade, $6 trillion could be wasted in finding and developing "unburnable carbon."
To commit to another four decades of carbon-intensive energy production as envisioned by the new OCS plan - Obama's "all-of-the-above" ("business-as-usual") energy policy — would dangerously delay our switch to sustainable, low-carbon energy, and virtually guarantee future climate chaos. Given the scientific consensus for the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, this new OCS plan is irresponsible and reckless. More offshore drilling is not a solution to our energy-climate crisis, but would only deepen and prolong the crisis, likely until it is too late. It is time to say "no" to this self-destructive energy path, and get busy building the future sustainable energy economy.
Some lawmakers are already expressing opposition to the drilling plan. In a July 2, 2014 letter to the President, Sens. Bob Menendez, Cory Booker, and Congressman Frank Pallone (Ds-NJ) wrote that they "strongly oppose any efforts to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, particularly any such efforts that would threaten New Jersey's vibrant coastal communities... We owe it to future generations to ensure that our pristine natural resources are preserved and protected from the polluting fossil fuel industry." The same is true for all of our nation's waters.
In the Arctic, large-scale offshore drilling would forever change the seascape and ecosystem. The Arctic Ocean is a spectacular, unique, and fragile marine ecosystem, home to polar bears, walrus, whales, ice-seals, and ancient human cultures.
Already suffering extreme effects of climate change, drilling in the Arctic Ocean would make matters worse by adding significant industrial disturbance, including platforms, pipelines, tankers, ports, ship and air traffic, underwater noise, suspended sediment, and of course oil spills with no hope of cleanup. The area's remoteness, severe weather and icy seas make drilling here a high-risk, unacceptable gamble.
Just ask Shell Oil. In perhaps the most intensely scrutinized offshore drilling project in history, Shell's calamitous 2012 Arctic drilling effort off Alaska displayed arrogance, incompetence, and a reckless disregard for the risks involved.
One of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs, the Kulluk, being towed across the stormy Gulf of Alaska in late December (to avoid paying first-of-the-year taxes), broke its tow and grounded off of Kodiak Island. Its other drill ship, the Noble Discoverer, had to emergency-disconnect from drilling to avoid the approach of a large ice floe, had a stack fire, broke down and had to be towed into port, was detained by the Coast Guard, and was issued several notices of violation and serious deficiencies.
Shell's oil spill containment dome "crushed like a beer can" when it was first tested. Both of Shell's Arctic drill rigs were seriously damaged, and the company had to cancel its 2013 and 2014 Arctic drilling plans. Industry observers opined that Shell may have "bitten off more than it could chew."
If we genuinely care about our coastal and marine areas, we should not expose them to the risk of oil drilling. Spills will occur; they can't be cleaned up; they can cause long-term, even permanent, damage; and restoration is impossible. Where we do produce and transport oil, it must be done with the highest possible safety standards. We need to use oil much more efficiently, and stop wasting it.
But beyond this, the global climate simply cannot afford the carbon that would be produced offshore. Instead, we need to kick our hydrocarbon habit, and get on with the hard work of building a sustainable energy economy.
If President Obama wants to make good on his campaign pledge to "slow the rise in the oceans," and to "heal the planet," he needs to abandon this plan for new offshore drilling (at the very least, permanently withdraw the Arctic), and begin to phase-out existing offshore oil production. A tall order, perhaps, but essential in order to incentivize the transition to a sustainable energy future. And with such bold U.S. leadership, other nations would be encouraged to follow.
Sheikh Zaki Yamani, former Saudi Arabian oil minister, once said, "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil." Our ancestors invented a smarter way to live. Now it's our turn.
Richard Steiner is a professor and conservation biologist.