A quarter of a century ago, Congress moved decisively to protect the majority of this country’s coastline, fishing grounds, marine life and beaches from potentially damaging effects of oil and gas development such as oil spills. Legislators prevented the leasing of most coastal waters for fossil fuel development by adopting the Outer Continental Shelf Moratorium.
Congress has renewed that legislation annually and further protections were put in place by the first President Bush and Bill Clinton. While exploration and development of natural gas and oil has taken place in the Gulf of Mexico, states along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have remained immunized from the industrialization of their waters and coastlines by offshore oil and gas development.
Earlier this month, as turmoil continued in the oil-producing Middle East and gas prices began yet another rise, the energy industry capped a frenzied lobbying season by convincing their friends in the House of Representatives to lift that 25 year moratorium. The sweeping piece of legislation that was passed would open up most of the Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas drilling — some of it as close as 50 miles from shore. It was championed by Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., whose bold attempts to gut longtime Endangered Species Act protections as well as roll back this country’s landmark law protecting offshore fishing stocks are fast earning him the reputation as the grim reaper of the anti-environmental movement.
Coastal state leaders — among them Republican governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Mark Sanford of South Carolina — protested the move. Maine’s Gov. John Baldacci did, too. All three have said that the potential returns from oil and gas development aren’t enough to justify the risk to their respective states’s fishing and tourist industries posed by an oil spill.
Here in the Northeast, any offshore drilling would place at risk the region’s lobster industry, as well as fishing on the George’s Bank. That’s the once immensely productive fishing grounds 75 miles offshore that still supports a large scallop industry, and whose other depleted fish populations are the focus of major restoration efforts. It’s a measure of the legislation’s threat that the normally divided and fractious fishing industry is united in its opposition to it.
The focus now is on the Senate version of the bill, which is less radical than the House bill. Although its proponents have yet to reveal the exact wording of the legislation, it’s likely to promote drilling only in the Gulf of Mexico, where oil and gas exploration has been underway for a long time. It also includes a good provision to funnel a percentage of lease royalties to states through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In the several decades since it was established, that program has helped states pay for outdoor recreation purchases and projects — including many of Maine’s state parks and municipal recreation facilities — but it has been inadequately funded in the recent past.
Maine’s two senators have both said unequivocally they will not stand for drilling off of Maine’s coastline. If the Senate passes the bill, then legislators from both the House and Senate will have to negotiate a compromise version — and that’s where the danger lies.
Advocates for the House bill have tried to sway the opposition with a provision that would allow a state to adopt a drilling ban and renew it every five years. But that poses two problems: What happens, say, if Maine banned drilling on the portion of the ocean off our state — but Massachusetts didn’t? No oil spill in waters off Massachusetts stays isolated to those waters. With $813 million in commercial fish landings from New England alone, that’s not simply a question of one state being polite to another. It’s a major economic issue. And secondly, our statehouse is already overrun by lobbyists; there’s not enough room in the Capitol’s parking lots for the number of oil and gas industry lobbyists who would show up every five years to get the state to lift its moratorium.
Finally, while energy independence is a noble goal, getting there by potentially sacrificing a national treasure like our coastlines and our regional fishing industries hardly seems the wise option. By raising fuel efficiency standards in cars, by promoting energy efficiency programs and by focussing on renewable energy sources, we can diminish much of the demand for oil and gas development. We’re not pollyanish enough to say that we’re never going to have to develop new sources. But working simultaneously to tame our addiction to fossil fuels while wisely choosing which areas are least vulnerable to the risks posed by energy development seems a much better approach than wholesale abandonment of a moratorium that has served us well for two and a half decades.