The Trump administration's newly unveiled proposal to vastly expand offshore drilling threatens to unleash an "oil-soaked nightmare" with the potential of over 5,000 spills that could leak more than 34 million gallons of oil into U.S. waters, an environmental group warned Wednesday.
"No president has ever pushed a drilling plan that would do so much damage along so many American coastlines. It's really astonishing," said Abel Valdivia, an ocean scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity who conducted the analysis.
Trump's Interior Department announced the five-year plan earlier this month, which boasted offering "the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history" for drilling in the National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).
The Obama administration put 94 percent of the OCS off limits to drilling; the new plan, in contrast, would make over 90 percent of the OCS available for oil and gas exploration. Specifically, the draft proposal—promptly condemned as an "all-out assault on public lands and waters"—includes 19 lease sales off the coast of Alaska, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, nine in the Atlantic region, and seven 7 in the Pacific region.
Using federal records and historical data from 1974-2015, the Valdivia estimated that the majority—53 percent—of the spills (2975) would occur in the Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-eight percent (1,574) of the spills would happen in northern Alaska, mostly in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. As environmental groups have long warned, oil drilling in this environment is particularly foolhardy, given the extreme weather conditions, the nearest Coast Guard base being nearly a thousand miles away, and the potential impact on wildlife such as polar bears and caribou already burdened by the climate crisis, not to mention its impacts on indigenous rights.
The analysis found that 12 percent of the spills (657) would be along the West Coast, while the East coast would fare best with about 7 percent of the spills (364).
"Trump's plan will be a long, oil-soaked nightmare for our coasts and wildlife," Valdivia said.
The Center for Biological Diversity notes that the spill estimates are conservative. The analysis doesn't take into consideration the possibility of a mega-disaster like BP's Deepwater Horizon, nor does it capture the potential spill impacts of Trump's proposed rollback of offshore drilling safety regulations.
"Oil spills do long-lasting damage to marine ecosystems and wildlife, from the smallest plankton to sea turtles and dolphins," Valdivia said. "Marine organisms are already under significant stress from overfishing, pollution, and climate change, and toxic oil spills are the last thing they need."
Speaking about the impacts of the proposed drilling expansion to Democracy Now!, author and professor of art and ecology at the University of New Mexico Subhankar Banerjee said the administration is "doing everything to undermine the public process. They're silencing scientists. They're marginalizing and silencing indigenous communities. We need an all-out, antiwar-style movement now."