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Offshore Oil Drilling: Politics Trumps Science.

President Obama is a vast improvement over former President Bush in every respect. Remember when we all decried the politicization of then-President Bush’s science-related decisions, and worked for a candidate who vowed to listen to science? Obama’s March 31 decision to open up large parts of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan coastlines to offshore drilling wholly ignores a host of recommendations regarding drilling made by the nation’s premier scientific agency for oceans, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

1. Background:
The Minerals Management Service, which runs the nation’s offshore oil leasing program, is required to draft lease plans every five years. Recommendations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are not binding but should be given weight. In September 2009, the NOAA provided a detailed critique of a then-pending 2010-2015 offshore oil drilling lease plan. While some of the critique applied to specific language of the Bush-era plan, other criticisms covered the idea of exploring and drilling for oil in various sensitive habitats. As summed up in the Los Angeles Times, the NOAA recommended

excluding large tracts of the Alaska coast, the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA’s report contained a large number of specific studies be done before specific areas are to be opened up for drilling or even for exploration. On March 31, Obama announced a new plan (graph credit: NYTimes) with public comments beginning April 9. Obama’s decision appears to ignore many specific recommendations of the NOAA.

2. Details:
Specifically, as described in the 26 page letter (pdf):

* "At a minimum, NOAA believes that lease areas should not be considered in the [lease plan] until the CEQ-led Ocean Policy Task Force has released its recommendations and directives" (p.3) The Ocean Policy Task Force, announced by Obama in June 2009, released an interim report in September 2009 and an interim framework in December 2009 (which calls for placing "Science-Based Information at the Heart of Decision-Making"), but has not produced any final recommendations or directives. Obama appears to have rushed a decision before a task force appointed by him has finished its work.

* "NOAA believes that no leasing should occur in the Arctic Ocean [which includes the Beaufort and Chukchi seas]" (p.5) without additional information and research on spill risk, response, and impact on human habitation. The Minerals Management Service lists two pages of ongoing studies, including many that began in fiscal year 2010. In short, key studies are incomplete.

* "NOAA also recommends that the canyon areas in the existing Virginia Sale Area 220 in the Mid-Atlantic Planning Area be excluded" (p.16) pending a joint MMS-NOAA study on coral. The
detailed map (pdf) doesn’t show any exclusions, and the joint study appears to be still in prospectus stage for fiscal year 2010. Again, a key study hasn’t been completed, and may not even be started.

* NOAA’s report (pp. 17-18) pays particular attention to the South Atlantic area, from Virginia to Florida’s east coast, which contains some of the best-developed and most extensive deep sea coral reefs known in US waters. NOAA recommends no lease sales without mapping of the seafloor, creation of No Activity Zones, and creation of coral habitat areas of particular concern. Obama has proposed that these areas be explored before drilling, but pre-drilling explorations are not the same as creation of "stay out" zones.

* The NOAA report also recommends (pp. 17-18) that numerous habitat areas of particular concern in the Gulf of Mexico be excluded from any leasing plan, beginning with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a salt dome off the Texas-Louisiana coast. It’s hard to correlate the NOAA list with the MMS map.

* In an understated bureaucratic fashion, the NOAA notes (p.21) that the Beaufort and Chukchi seas are experiencing "warming, open seas, and a general change in climate," which are causing it to close fisheries until the effect of climate change on fish is understood better. "A similar precautionary approach for oil and gas drilling should be considered." Obama’s plan greenlights Bush-era leases in those environmentally sensitive areas.

* The NOAA report practically begs the MMS to work with NOAA, to no avail; "MMS does not intend to consult with NOAA under the authorities of the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act until the lease sale stage." (p.22) Even pre-lease oil exploration activities, such as seismic surveys, can affect animals and habitat, the NOAA reports.

The overall pattern is clear. The drilling plan is being rushed through, starting with public comments beginning this week, completely ignoring scientific recommendations to proceed with caution. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has already noted some of the same concerns in this diary, calling Obama’s plan "politics as usual rather than the promised rational, balanced planning effort" sought by the Oceans Policy Task Force. "Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to regard ocean resources as a bargaining chip rather than as a heritage."

3. Action:
Public comments on scoping begin this Friday, April 9, closing June 30, and can be made online at this link (for those on Twitter, note the short, easily twitterable URL). According to the MMS (5 pg pdf), issues of concern include "climate change as an impact factor in cumulative analyses, the effects of the OCS program on climate change, potential impacts from accidental oil spills, potential impacts to tourism and recreation activities, and ecological impacts from potential degradation of marine and coastal habitats."

Environmental impact statements need to be made and scrutinized for each new lease. Judges will sometimes block drilling plans where sound scientific information is being ignored. Although it is horrifying that we will have to fight a Democratic administration to save the environment, to paraphrase Ansel Adams, it’s more horrifying that we simply trust Obama and oil companies to explore in a sensitive fashion.

4. Conclusion:
The decision to open up vast areas for exploration and drilling is wrong for many reasons. Fundamentally, drilling fossil fuels in the name of clean energy is inherently contradictory and morally wrong. Because actions speak louder than words, the decision also sends the wrong message to the American public: "we can drill our way out of the crisis" no matter what Obama says in speeches.

Despite the administration’s claim that the drilling plan is not horse trading for votes on a climate/energy bill, most mainstream media opinions see the decision as political, not policy. (It’s also shaping up as a political failure too, for reasons best left to another diary.) Looking only at policy grounds, science favoring further study and protection has been ignored by the Obama administration’s rush to drill.

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