The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) under President Donald Trump plans to make 90 percent of the country’s outer continental shelf available for privatized offshore drilling, according to a new draft proposal released Thursday. If enacted, this would be the largest offshore lease sale of federal waters in U.S. history, and reverse the Obama administration’s “indefinite” ban on drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. The proposal has been widely criticized by Democrats, environmental groups, and some Republicans, who fear an increase in offshore drilling will induce devastating environmental and economic consequences.

The offshore lease plan would last from 2019 to 2024, and open up chunks of the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans to oil and gas exploration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke released a a statement saying the decision would provide “billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands, and parks.”

The response from environmental proponents has been swift and fierce. Over 60 environmental groups have already denounced the proposal.

“The Southeast coast is built around a thriving tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the world to the pristine beaches, picturesque coastal communities, and beautiful waters that could be devastated with a single major oil spill,” the Southern Environmental Law Center said in its own statement. “Even without a catastrophic accident, the industrialization and infrastructure associated with drilling—the rigs, refineries, pipelines, and traffic—would irreparably change coastal communities and the thriving tourism economy.”

 Crews clean oil from the beach at Refugio State Beach. About 21,000 gallons spilled from an abandoned pipeline on the land near Refugio State Beach, spreading over about four miles of beach within hours. 

The continental shelf at the heart of the proposal is part of an area is called the Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 miles away from the coastline, but still within American borders. The DOI manages the zone and can lease parts of it to private companies for energy development. In return, these companies pay government royalties on whatever energy resources they procure from the leased lands.

But the side effects to such ventures can wreak havoc on the ocean and turn its waters into toxic traps. Offshore drilling produces bulk waste in the form of drilling muds (used to lubricate and cool the drill bit), and “produced water,” which is brought up with oil and gas and can contain small amounts of chemicals.

There is also, of course, the potential for pipeline leaks and catastrophic spills akin to the Deepwater Horizon Spill, which led to the discharge of 4.9 million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico. According to the conservation nonprofit Oceana, 195 million gallons of gas end up released into the ocean annually due to offshore drilling.

And private drilling companies have an extraordinary amount of work to do to prevent the possibility of a massive spill and mitigate environmental degradation. A report commissioned by former President Barack Obama in 2011 in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Spill, found that the “scientific understanding of environmental conditions in sensitive environments in sensitive environments in deep Gulf waters, along with the regions’ coastal habitats, and in areas proposed for more drilling, such as the Arctic, is inadequate.” The drilling rigs themselves, the authors wrote, pose a serious danger to those working on them, and the risk of disaster is compounded by the cold, distant environments where the rigs are located.

The report’s authors, led by former Florida governor Bob Graham, specifically indicted the industry’s dependence on complex technologies and processes fraught with risks, combined with “the related tendency for a culture of complacency to develop over time in the absence of major accidents.” The challenges in offshore drilling, they write, are analogous to those at a nuclear power plant.

In other words, offshore drilling possesses a host of hazardous factors that create a recipe for disaster, and companies have done little to demonstrate they can competently prevent and manage problems when they arise. The dangers fall not just on the ecosystem, but on the rig’s workers as well.

Public meetings around the country will begin on January 16 where people can give their opinions on the draft proposed program. If you can’t wait until then, you can deliver your comments online beginning January 8.


Check out this video where Bill Nye predicts the future of bacon, the environment, animals, and bacteria.