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In the End, US Gets (Partial) Offshore Drilling Ban

by Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON - As negotiators meet in Cancùn to discuss how to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, the impacts of the oil spill disaster that unfolded earlier this year on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico are still rippling through Washington.

Two protesters unveil an anti-offshore drilling sign during a hearing of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in August. (Jay Mallin/Bloomberg) On Wednesday, they led to the U.S. government announcing it was rescinding a decision made in the pre-oil spill days and not opening up more regions in the southeastern U.S. to offshore oil drilling.

The announcement ends one of the last unfinished chapters of the saga that began when the well below the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico on Apr. 20. Eventually, the well was capped, but, along with lingering questions over the health effects of the oil and the dispersants used to get rid of it, one main question that remained was how far would President Barack Obama's administration go in ensuring against another such catastrophe?

Though the leak was declared stopped in September, it was not before more than an estimated four million barrels of crude oil had seeped into the gulf and another two million gallons of chemical dispersants were sprayed, significantly damaging marine and coastal habitat, the livelihoods of fishers and others, and, many contend, the health of residents and cleanup workers.

Just prior to the disaster, in March, Obama announced he would be expanding offshore drilling activities. As the magnitude of the gulf oil spill grew, though, he temporarily banned new deepwater offshore drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico.

This announcement drew an outcry from those who said the ban would cost too many jobs, though studies showed that the number of jobs lost was minimal and many groups argued it was a small price to pay to be sure to avoid another massive disaster.

Saying the government failed to sufficiently demonstrate the need for a moratorium, a federal court ordered the government to rescind it. The government then issued another moratorium and courts again order a withdrawal. By that time, though, the government said that the ban was no longer necessary since it felt enhanced safety requirements and other safeguards had been implemented.

Strengthening those regulations, though, has been an ongoing process, and on Wednesday Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that in order to get the regulations right, the government would limit offshore oil drilling leases so it can focus on ensuring that the ones that already exist are done safely.

"As a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill we learned a number of lessons, most importantly that we need to proceed with caution and focus on creating a more stringent regulatory regime. As that regime continues to be developed and implemented, we have revised our initial March leasing strategy to focus and expand our critical resources on areas with leases that are currently active," said Salazar.

The announcement rescinds the March decision, which would have allowed for expanded drilling along the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the U.S.'s southern and mid-Atlantic coasts.

Leases for drilling in the western and coastal Gulf of Mexico as well as parts of Alaska's Arctic Sea coasts would still go forward, however, though they would be subject to longer, stricter environmental reviews by regulators.

Environmental groups generally felt the decision was the right one, but regretted that it did not go farther.

The executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Peter Lehner, called putting drilling in the protected regions off-limits "the right thing to do".

"This action creates a no blow-out zone in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Eastern Gulf. It protects these waters and the millions of Americans who depend upon them from the kind of catastrophic spill still poisoning the Gulf seven months after the BP disaster," he said.

But Lehner also noted how the decision leaves open the possibility of drilling in some fragile Arctic regions.

"We don't yet know how to clean up oil in sea ice conditions, where oil breaks down slowly, if at all. These seas are home to one-fifth of the world's polar bears, as well as seals, migratory birds, endangered bowhead whales, beluga whales, walrus and other marine life. Until we know how to protect this region from the risk of a blow-out and how to clean up oil spills in Arctic waters, these areas, too, need to be off-limits to drilling," he said.

Athan Manuel, director of land protection at the Sierra Club, also called the decision a significant step, but, he noted, "an oil spill like the BP disaster could happen anywhere – in Alaska, or in other parts of the central and western Gulf Coast where drilling is allowed."

He said the U.S. faces a choice between reliance on fossil fuels obtained through practices like offshore drilling and moving to more sustainable sources of energy, including offshore wind farms.

"Last week, the [Obama] administration announced plans to facilitate responsible offshore wind development. By encouraging clean energy like wind instead of more offshore drilling, the administration will help protect coastal jobs and communities," Manuel said.

"We can continue to destroy coastal communities in the pursuit of dirty, outdated energy like oil. Or we can aggressively invest in clean energy like wind that will create good jobs here at home and keep America competitive in the global clean energy economy."

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