Avoiding Another Exxon Valdez

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(This article originally appeared in The Hill.)

Twenty-seven years ago, Exxon Valdez showed the nation in sharp relief what can happen when we allow fossil fuel development in one of the world’s most diverse and remote marine environments.

On March 24, 1989, just after midnight, Exxon’s oil tanker hit a reef, releasing 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound on the southern coast of Alaska. After initial attempts to contain the spill failed, high winds and rough seas spread crude oil until more than 1,300 miles of coastline were fouled.

Staggering numbers of wildlife perished almost immediately: as many as 250,000 seabirds, more than 2,800 otters, almost 250 bald eagles, and 22 orca whales. The commercial fishing industry lost more than $300 million as a result of the disaster.

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And twenty-seven years later, the devastation lingers. Crude oil remains beneath beaches. The orca whale population continues to struggle. And crab and shrimp populations have yet to fully recover.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In many ways, BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico proved that adage. And when Shell’s Kulluk drill rig ran aground near Kodiak Island on New Year’s Eve 2012, it was yet another frightening reminder of the horrific impacts of one of the largest spills in U.S. history.

Now, egged on by Exxon and other major oil producers, the Obama administration is poised to ignore the lessons of Exxon Valdez once more.

Last January, the administration’s Bureau of Energy and Ocean Management proposed opening up areas of the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as huge swaths of the Atlantic Ocean from Virginia to Georgia to new offshore drilling.

While Atlantic coast communities breathed a sigh of relief last week when all lease areas in the mid and south Atlantic regions were pulled from the proposed program, 10 new lease areas remain proposed in the Gulf of Mexico and three remain in Alaskan waters – two of which are located in the Arctic Ocean.

If adopted as proposed, the administration’s 2017 to 2022 drilling plan would worsen global warming and put at risk the fragile Arctic and Gulf Coast communities long suffering from drilling’s harms.

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Everywhere we have drilled, we have spilled. The Gulf of Mexico, home to most of the United States’ offshore drilling operations, has suffered one spill larger than 100,000 gallons every other year on average since 1964.

The Arctic Ocean is one of the most unique marine ecosystems in the world, but its remote location and extreme conditions would make a spill nearly impossible to clean up, and the Obama administration itself concedes the risk of a spill is high. A disaster in the Arctic would threaten whales, walruses and one fifth of the world’s polar bear population, not to mention Arctic communities already under threat from climate change.

In the Gulf, more drilling would further damage a region where hundreds of thousands of miles of coastal marshes have already been lost to oil and gas development. What’s more, the area is still recovering from the devastating impacts of the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Scientists are clear that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, from devastating floods to rising seas to wildfires, we must keep the vast majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground. There’s no better place to start than with the fragile Arctic, and with a just transition off fossil fuels that begins with no new drilling in the Gulf.

The Obama administration has already shown an inclination to protect the Arctic and limit new drilling. Earlier this month it announced a wide ranging joint climate agreement with Canada, pledging to take into account climate science and emergency response plans when determining future oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean. And last week the administration heeded the pleas of local communities when it took the Atlantic out of its proposed drilling plan.

Thus, with the public comment period now open for the 2017 to 2022 Outer Continental Shelf leasing plan, clean energy and clean coast advocates have momentum on our side.

Today, on the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, let’s ensure the dark days of history don’t repeat themselves once more. The stakes are high for our coasts, our communities and our climate. Join us in urging President Obama to withdraw his administration’s proposal for new drilling.

(Cindy Shogan is Executive Director of Alaska Wilderness League. Margie Alt is Executive Director of Environment America.)

 

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