Ocean Confidence is a semi-submersible deep-water drilling rig used in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM
Ocean Confidence is a semi-submersible deep-water drilling rig used in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ocean Confidence is a semi-submersible deep-water drilling rig used in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM

Washington – The Obama administration may soon break a key environmentalist commandment: Thou shalt not drill for oil in the Atlantic.

Consequently, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal has joined a list of East Coast senators who want to stop the president from allowing oil and natural gas production in what are considered environmentally sensitive waters.

“There may be places where drilling is appropriate, but right now offshore isn’t one of them,” Blumenthal, D-Conn. said

He is joined by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Edward Markey, D-Mass., Sheldon Whitehead, D-R.I., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other Northeast Democrats who have recently introduced the Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism (COAST) Anti-Drilling Act.

The legislation would prohibit the U.S. Department of Interior from issuing leases for the exploration, development, or production of oil or gas in the North, Mid- or South Atlantic Ocean.

Starting in the early 1980’s, drilling was banned in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and limited largely to the western portion of the Gulf of Mexico and waters off the coast of Alaska by moratoria imposed both by Congress and the White House.

Former President George W. Bush lifted the executive branch moratorium, threatened to veto any legislation that included the ban, and proposed to do what hadn’t been done in more than 30 years — open the Atlantic to oil and gas production with a lease sale in the Mid- and South Atlantic.

Obama disappointed environmentalists by continuing work on Bush’s five-year energy proposal, with some modifications.  But, in response to the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, work on the lease sale was postponed.

The Obama administration then surprised environmentalists by reinstating the plan in January. It is under development by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and, among other things, would allow drilling outside a 50-mile coastal buffer.

“The safe and responsible development of our nation’s domestic energy resources is a key part of the President’s efforts to support American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell  at the time. “This is a balanced proposal that would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources, while protecting areas that are simply too special to develop.”

To Alexandra Adams, oceans advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the move was hard to understand.

“This is inconsistent with the president’s climate goal, so it’s a mystery why he is doing  this,” she said. “It’s worth noting the Atlantic Coast has been off the table to drilling since 1983.”

The Northeast senators who are trying to stop the plan represent states that are not the closest to the proposed lease sales. But they note oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill was found on more than 1,100 miles of coastline.

“As we saw just a few short years ago, offshore oil spills do not respect artificial state boundaries, and a spill in the Atlantic could affect our states,” the senators wrote Jewell.

Blumenthal says Long Island Sound is a unique estuary that, if polluted, would be very difficult to restore.

“Long Island Sound is a precious, profoundly significant resource — highly susceptible to pollutants or toxins introduced elsewhere — clearly needing the protection afforded by this legislation,” he said.

Leah Schmalz, program director for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment’s “Save the Sound” program, shares Blumenthal’s concerns.

“As everybody knows, oil doesn’t know any boundaries,” she said.

Schmalz said the issue goes beyond putting coastlines and species that travel hundreds of miles along the East Coast in danger of a spill. To Schmalz, promoting more offshore oil drilling, instead of concentrating on the production of cleaner sources of energy, “goes against what should be the priorities for this country.”

North vs. South

In a way, this is a conflict between Northern and Southern States.

oil drilling map

Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, states that are closest to the proposed lease sites, support the administration’s plan. But they are seeking a revenue-sharing deal, now enjoyed by four Gulf states, that will give each as much as $500 million a year beginning in 2017.

Meanwhile, the governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Delaware and Rhode Island are opposed to the plan or have indicated serious concerns about its impact on fisheries and other natural resources.

The Malloy administration declined to provide specifics on the proposal, citing the very early stages of the process and the need for the state to review potential impacts.

But the clock is ticking.

A public comment period on the plan ended on March 31. The administration is now working on final regulations for the  2017 to 2022, five-year energy plan that would put thousands of acres 50 miles from shore up for lease to energy companies that offer the best deals. The five-year plan also includes new lease areas in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska.

The plan provoked more than half a million comments between June of last year and the end of March. Nearly every major environmental organization weighed in, some of them attaching petitions.

Oceana, for example, said, “The Atlantic Ocean has long been spared from the dangerous threats posed by offshore drilling and must retain these important protections. Drilling in the Atlantic would expose marine wildlife, and important industries that depend on healthy oceans, to unprecedented risk. As many as 138,000 dolphins and whales could be harmed by seismic blasting. Once drilling begins, spills will inevitably follow.”

An Oceana petition that circulated in New England and New York was signed by thousands of people, including dozens of Connecticut residents.

On the other side of the debate is the politically powerful oil industry and concerns about U.S. dependence on oil from the politically explosive and increasingly anarchic Middle East.

“The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that by 2040 U.S. energy demand will grow by 12 percent and worldwide energy needs will increase by 56 percent, with more than half of that demand expected to be met by oil and natural gas,” the American Petroleum Institute said in its public comments.

Before the moratorium, dozens of exploratory wells were drilled in the Atlantic, including off the coast of Massachusetts. But they were mostly dry holes.

Yet in the draft of the five-year plan, the BOEM says, “Some data suggest that portions of the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic Planning Areas may contain significant oil and gas resource potential.”

It also says that data was collected in the 1970s and 1980s — before the moratoria put an end to exploration in the outer continental shelf.

But the BOEM said “tremendous advances in instrumentation and technology for the acquisition and analysis of (geologic) data have been made in the intervening decades” that would pinpoint the locations of deposits large enough to be economically feasible for offshore production.

Adams of the National Resources Defense Council said she hopes protests from Northeast Democrats, the environmental community and thousands of East Coast residents will persuade the Obama administration to pull the proposed Atlantic lease sale from the final plan.

“We still believe there is an opportunity to get this taken out,” she said.

As far as the COAST Act, it may be hard to get through a GOP-controlled Congress since a majority of Republicans support expanding U.S. domestic oil production.

But Blumenthal and the legislation’s other supporters say the bill’s introduction last month served as a message to the Obama administration.

“My hope is this measure will show the administration that [the Atlantic lease sales] have to be removed,” Blumenthal said.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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