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Editorial: With Trump vowing to increase offshore drilling, Obama should try to prevent future oil and gas exploration

Offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
(Los Angeles Times)

Few things define California to the rest of the world like its coast, from the sandy beaches of Southern California to the stunning vistas of Big Sur and the rugged north coast. Nearly 50 years ago, the state got a taste of how damaging an offshore oil spill can be when 3 million gallons of crude gushed into the sea near Santa Barbara, an ecological disaster that coated 35 miles of coastline. Other, smaller leaks here in California, as well as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, reinforced the conclusion that offshore drilling is too environmentally risky for the reward of yet more climate-changing fossil fuels heading to market.

That’s why Gov. Jerry Brown — echoing a request by Democratic senators from the West Coast, including Californians Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein — asked President Obama this week to use his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to ban new drilling in federal waters off the West Coast. That’s a sound idea. Not only is the beauty of the coast imperiled by drilling, but so is the “clean coast economy,” an estimated $44-billion, 650,000 job industry rooted in tourism, commercial and recreational fishing, leisure boating and other activities not tied to pumping oil from beneath the sea.

The world needs to ratchet back both production and use of oil if it is to stave off catastrophic climate change.

Obama should go further and ban drilling in federal waters in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast (which some Democratic senators, mostly from the East Coast, have called for). The administration recently adopted its 2017-2022 plan for offshore energy development, which would allow new leases in 10 areas of the Gulf of Mexico, and another lease in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. But allowing any additional wells ramps up the risk — spills at sea are exceedingly more difficult to clean up than on land, and the oil they unleash spreads with the currents. The U.S. should move away from offshore drilling, which accounts for about 16% of U.S. production. Global warming is real, and human use of fossil fuels is largely responsible for it. The world needs to ratchet back both production and use of oil if it is to stave off catastrophic climate change. Allowing new drilling in the open ocean is not the way to get there.

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Obama ought to view an outright ban on new drilling in federal waters as a defensive maneuver. President-elect Donald J. Trump has pledged to increase domestic oil and gas production, including more offshore drilling and leases on federal lands. His cabinet-level selections, which include a mix of climate change-skeptics and people with deep oil-industry ties, suggest this is an area in which he will try to deliver as promised. That would be disastrous for the environment, and by invoking the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to ban new offshore wells, Obama could at least make it exceedingly difficult for Trump to let the oil companies loose on the seas.

Supporters of the effort refer to it as a permanent ban, but permanence in this context is not a sure thing. The act says the president “may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the outer Continental Shelf.” One might assume that anything one president can do unilaterally, another president can undo. But the law has no clear mechanism for reopening withdrawn lands for drilling. No president has tried to do so since the law was enacted in 1953, and environmentalists say such an effort by Trump would be met with legal challenges that would likely outlive his presidency.

It’s worth the effort, and the fight. Off-shore drilling, no matter the protestations of safety by oil companies and drillers, exposes oceans and coastlines to significant and expensive potential harm. And as the world experiences faster-than-anticipated climate change, it’s foolhardy to exacerbate the problem by expanding opportunities for drilling for oil and gas, particularly in a high-risk manner. Yes, the world needs oil, but it also needs to transition away from it. And the United States needs to protect its coastlines from dangerous oil spills. While the federal government doesn’t have much sway on drilling in state waters — Alaska has a number of active platforms within three miles of shore — it does have control over the exploitation of federal waters. Obama should impose a ban on future drilling there, even if it will be left to the environmental activists to make sure it sticks.

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