Economy Environmental policy Industry

The real story under the controversy over offshore drilling

On January 4 2018 Interior Secretary Zinke announced a plan to open up 90% of the U.S.’s offshore Exclusive Economic Zone, equivalent to more than three quarters of the land area of the United States to commercial recovery of oil and gas. The report ( stated that current moratoria put 94% of the this area under moratoria. Florida was to be excluded from the proposed open areas.

The Interior announcement set off heated opposition from environmentalists and governors of many states. Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said Monday in an email. “This debacle has further highlighted Donald Trump and his administration’s incompetence and failure to take the health, safety, and economic well-being of coastal communities seriously”

As a long-time researcher on offshore environmental policy I suggest that current objections to offshore drilling have less to do with real environmental hazards than with a unique US ideological conflict that emerged in the 1980s. Democrats became the party of environment and Republicans became the party of industry. Opponents to drilling declare that drilling will devastate the coastal environment and economy and throw every possible argument against it, justified or not. Industry and its conservative supporters are no angels either. They long ago abandoned public debate in favor of lobbying and behind the scenes networking on short-range goals.

Compare the 94% of U.S. under offshore moratorium up to the recent Interior Department action with Norway, an international environmental leader. Norway leases all potentially productive offshore areas except off the Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, where there are cod spawning grounds. Its offshore oil industry coexists with Norway’s important fishing industry. Norway’s huge fund from petroleum revenues now covers the national pension system.

U.S. Geological Survey assessments show that potential hydrocarbon resources off Maryland are in the Mesozoic Taylorsville basin off Virginia and southern Maryland. They are primarily natural gas, not oil. Had Virginia and Maryland leased their offshore areas years ago and dedicated revenue from lease sales to renewable energy projects like offshore wind turbines and carbon burial they could have been national environmental leaders, even if no commercial production resulted (see state offshore sectors in figure from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)

If the U.S. had not become embroiled in our battle-to-the-death conflict over natural resource policy it would now probably be a world leader against global climate change instead of a black sheep – with nearly the lowest proportion of renewable energy to total energy consumption among advanced nations. Whereas 3200 offshore wind turbines operate in European waters our regulatory and ideological impasses mean that we recently only got our first offshore wind farm off Block Island in 2016. Is it time to crawl out of our ideological caves and start acting rationally?

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