Deepwater drilling moratorium lifted: More oil spills to come?

Deepwater Horizon fire. Photo by DVIDSHUB, Flickr.

Even after the Gulf oil spill and as the evidence that BP sidestepped safety precautions mounts, it’s alarming that decision makers continue to give the oil and gas industry unbridled liberties to drill without precaution in the public’s lands and waters.

On Tuesday, June 22, a federal court judge stunned observers by striking down the Obama Administration’s six-month deepwater drilling moratorium on 33 exploratory deepwater wells in the Gulf.

The White House properly responded by saying that it would immediately appeal the ruling. Reopening the exploratory wells before we know what happened in the Deepwater Horizon spill is “a danger that the president does not believe we can afford right now,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

But even if the Obama Administration succeeds with reinstating the moratorium, Americans and American lands will continue to suffer drilling disasters if we do not start requiring tougher regulations for an industry that has enjoyed near unfettered access to operate unsafely on public lands and waters.

In the case of the Gulf, operations at 33 risky exploratory wells — just a fraction of the 3,600 oil and natural gas production platforms in the Gulf — should be paused until the government completes its investigation into the spill and put appropriate safety measures in place.

Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows said the moratorium should stay in place until the government can figure out whether dangerous drilling can be conducted in a manner that guarantees the safety of workers’ lives and the protection of marine and coastal environments.

“It defies common sense for Judge Feldman to allow the same activities that led to our nation’s worst oil spill disaster to resume in the absence of any new oil spill response plans by Big Oil,” Meadows said. He commended the Obama administration for immediately declaring that it would appeal the ruling.

While the Gulf oil spill offers the most obvious support for pulling back the reins on an oil and gas industry that has been allowed to profit and the expense of Americans, the fact is accidents and environmental contamination are so common to the point one could say they are part and parcel of drilling.

More disasters to come?

In just the month of June alone, three significant oil and gas drilling accidents in three separate states left at least seven people injured and sent tens of thousands gallons of oil, gas and toxic chemicals into waterways and natural surroundings.

The most recent occurred on June 15 when a Chevron pipeline leak in Utah spewed 17,000 gallons of oil into a Salt Lake City creek, covering more than 100 birds in oil. Prior to that, on June 3, a Pennsylvania natural gas well spewed explosive gas and more than 35,000 gallons of chemical-laced wastewater into the surrounding forest for 16 hours. Workers had lost control of that well after a blowout preventer failed. In a second major accident that same week, a West Virginia gas well exploded on June 7, burning seven workers.

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.Also in June, more reports surfaced of drinking water contamination from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a common and loosely regulated natural gas drilling process that has been linked to widespread, severe cases of drinking water contamination in communities near well sites (fracking is also the same process used in the Pennsylvania well that exploded).

In early June, groundwater in the small town of Dish, Texas, tested for high levels of arsenic and other poisonous chemicals. Some chemicals showed up at 21 times the safe level. Hydraulic fracturing goes on at wells throughout the town and in surrounding areas.

Disturbingly, Dish, Texas, is not an anomaly. In states throughout the country, communities are reporting alarming levels of water contamination due to fracking. Several communities have reported and documented that their tap water is flammable. Yet, despite the clear dangers, hydraulic fracturing is still not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Oil and gas industry still wants more land

Despite the dangers of both offshore and onshore drilling, proponents of fossil fuel are using the Gulf oil spill as a pretext to open more onshore drilling as a supposedly safer alternative to offshore drilling. Sarah Palin, who has long advocated for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, now uses the spill as reason to develop this heavy industry in the fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

What we hope Americans will realize is that no matter where it’s done, drilling can have devastating impacts for water, land, people and wildlife. The oil and gas industry already has unparalleled access to the nation’s public lands — as of the beginning of this year, it held 32 million onshore acres that it had not yet developed. Continuing to open more of our most pristine lands and allowing the industry to operate without reasonable regulations is not the answer.

Developing cleaner, safer solutions

That’s why it’s so important that we continue to press for policies that support the development of clean, renewable energy and for reforms to the way the oil and gas industry does business. This includes supporting the Obama administration on the deepwater drilling moratorium as well as its recent decision to postpone drilling in ecologically sensitive Arctic Waters and recent announcement to reform onshore land leasing procedures. It also means urging Congress to begin holding the oil and gas industry accountable for the contaminants they put into groundwater through hydraulic fracturing.

Deepwater Horizon fire. Photo by DVIDSHUB, Flickr.
Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.