The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

NOAA Raises Red Flags on Aggressive Offshore Drilling Plan

Exclusion Zones, Buffers and Oil Spill Protections Would Scale Back Lease Schedule


The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration urges that an
ambitious lease schedule for oil and gas drilling on the Outer
Continental Shelf be dramatically cut back, according to official
comments posted today by Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility (PEER). NOAA recommends safeguards for fisheries, marine
mammals and coastal populations that would significantly dial down the
number and size of offshore tracts offered for exploration and
development leasing.

The NOAA comments were filed on September
21, 2009, the comment deadline for the Draft Proposed Outer Continental
Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015 issued by the
Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS). That plan
issued in January reflects the pro-drilling approach of the outgoing
Bush administration. It would offer 12 large lease areas (4 in Alaska,
3 in the Atlantic, 2 in the Pacific and 3 in the Gulf of Mexico)
covering much of the American OCS.

In its comments, NOAA laid out positions not heard during the Bush years, including:

  • Exclusionary
    zones that would block lease sales in the Northern Aleutians (including
    Bristol Bay), near shore in the Chukchi Sea, as well as all the
    proposed Atlantic and Eastern Gulf tracts;
  • Buffer zones that
    would bar drilling "around national marine sanctuaries, Habitat Areas
    of Particular Concern, Critical Habitat for endangered and threatened
    species, major fishing grounds and to provide visual buffers to coastal
    areas dependent upon tourism"; and
  • A moratorium on any
    Arctic Ocean drilling until much better oil spill prevention and
    response capability is in place. NOAA also contends that MMS
    understates the expected frequency of and risk from spills, generally,
    noting aftereffects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita among other factors.

"It is refreshing to hear the voices of marine scientists
who were silenced for the past eight years," stated PEER Executive
Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization released a stream of suppressed
emails and other internal communications about negative effects of
noise, invasive species and other effects in Arctic waters that are now
reflected in the NOAA comments. "The question now is whether NOAA's
precautionary approach will drive federal policy or be run over by

In February, incoming Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
invited public as well as interagency comment on the plan. Salazar has
identified "energy independence" as his top priority. In addition to
expanded OCS exploration, Salazar is promoting non-conventional energy
developments offshore, as well as drilling.

The NOAA comments
state that OCS renewable energy planning is vague, lacks baseline
resource data, and is not coordinated with oil and gas planning. NOAA
also faults the failure to consider impacts from climate change
including "shoreline erosion" and sea ice reduction in the Arctic.

Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist at the University of
Alaska, applauded the NOAA comments. "NOAA's recommendations echo
concerns voiced for years by Alaska's Inupiaq people, scientists, and
fishermen regarding the real risks of offshore oil. The issue is
whether Interior will allow industry to drill anywhere it wants or
whether marine ecosystems will be protected from the inherent risks
that accompany offshore petroleum drilling."

"To avoid
conflict, the Obama White House has thus far straddled the fence
without taking firm stands on the underlying elements of a coherent
oceans policy," added Ruch, noting that NOAA has, for example, ruled
out designation of new national marine sanctuaries or monuments in the
Arctic that would preclude drilling. "Decision time is approaching,
however. If NOAA's warnings are not heeded Interior's offshore leasing
plans will again be ensnared in litigation."

Read the NOAA Comments

See the MMS Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015

Review scientific suppression on Arctic drilling impacts under Bush

Look at NOAA's reluctance to proceed on Arctic sanctuaries

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.