Washington, DC — 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 Interior.”
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.
Professor 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.”