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

Matthew O. Berger

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)

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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


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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.

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.

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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