By David Helvarg
Flush with victory after a one-vote win in the Senate that could open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the fossil-fuel industry and its friends in Congress are already working to carve up the coasts.
House Resources Committee chair Dick Pombo (R-Calif.) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) are leading the attack that could jettison a quarter-century-old congressional moratorium protecting most of the U.S. coastline from offshore oil and gas drilling. They have drafted or introduced bills that would allow acoustic surveying for oil and gas in the 200-mile U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (which includes the restricted areas), provide incentives for states to opt out of the moratorium, fast-track drilling leases in those waters, and give unilateral authority for energy development in U.S. waters to the Interior Department secretary.
Two decades ago, coastal residents rallied against offshore drilling. Today drilling proponents hope that soaring gas prices will blunt opposition. But a recent attempt to get a coastal state on record in support of the new drilling incentives was defeated in late March by a boisterous national campaign organized by the Virginia chapters of the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.
The “seaweed activists” point out that, along with long-standing fears of air and water pollution and devastating oil spills from blowouts and pipe ruptures along some of the country’s most coveted property, there are several new reasons to keep the coasts free of drill rigs. Recent studies suggest that human-caused ocean noise pollution — such as the explosive acoustic generators used in oil and gas surveying and the din of vessel traffic and construction around rig sites — can disturb, injure, or even kill whales and other marine mammals. Of particular concern is the effect of noise pollution on echolocation, the way many marine mammals “see” or read their environment, hunt for food, and communicate.
Offshore oil and gas development will also commit the United States to 30 to 50 years of additional carbon dependence at a time when fossil-fuel-driven climate change is being linked to rising sea levels, coral bleaching, intensified hurricane surges, and changes in oceanic circulation, chemistry, and productivity. Add marred shorelines and global environmental disruption, and the cost of oil dependence soars faster than fuel prices.