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Interior Department proposals on oil drilling are poor policies

Trying to understand why regulators and politicians do what they do takes a huge amount of baffled head scratching! I freely admit my intelligence is limited, but when I see members of a federal department advance contradictory and dangerous proposals, I must question theirs.

Cases in point: a) killing safety rules for offshore oil drilling; b) opening all U.S. waters to offshore oil drilling.

Late in December the Interior Department proposed to kill common-sense rules on offshore oil drilling that were imposed after the deadly 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The Associated Press said an offshore drilling group welcomed the rollback, arguing that the rules are an “unnecessary burden” (wow, there’s a surprise).

The targeted rules call for more frequent inspections of the massive blowout preventers. These valve-like devices are designed to prevent spills from wells on the ocean floor. The blowout preventer used by BP failed. It caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history, killing 11 men and spewing 215 million gallons of oil into the gulf. It fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida, and the effects are still being found in fish, crustaceans and birds seven years later.

Increased inspections are an “unnecessary burden”? Seriously? Assuming it’s all about money, and it always is, take note of the fact that BP paid $61 billion in penalties over six years after the failure of its blowout preventer. Even I can figure that more safety inspections can be done that could save a whole lot of money!

Here’s another genius idea from the Interior Department that could make ocean protection what Mount Vesuvius was to urban renewal. While we reduce safety inspections of blowout preventers, let’s greatly increase the possibility of more such spills by opening all U.S. waters to oil drilling.

Yup, last Thursday the Interior Department unveiled a plan to do just that, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic where oil and gas exploration is opposed by governors from Florida to New Jersey, more than 100 members of Congress and the Defense Department, according to reports in the Washington Post.

The issue has long been controversial, and governors immediately framed the problem well. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for example, notes that threatening his state’s beach tourism, which accounts for $50 billion and 500,000 jobs annually, is absolutely unacceptable.

Meanwhile, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland points out that anything like the BP spill would be disastrous for one of his state’s most precious resources, the Chesapeake Bay watershed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has fired back at the Interior Department, saying his state strongly opposes any drilling permits offshore because of its $44 billion beach tourism industry, which employs 300,000 people.

Some of it is already happening. Last month, a proposal was made to open 77 million more acres in the Gulf of Mexico to companies that want to purchase leases. It’s the largest such offering in the nation’s history. But looking ahead, it’s just the start.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said a five-year leasing plan would commit 90 percent of the nation’s offshore reserves to leasing, with 45 lease sales in 25 of 26 areas off the country’s coastlines between 2019 and 2024. Twelve leases in the Gulf of Mexico, nine in the Atlantic and 12 for the Alaskan coast are included. Leases also are proposed for Interior Department “planning areas” off California.

As a final example of a federal department that apparently doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about the overwhelming lack of support for its offshore proposals, it is now reported that Interior also has suspended a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on the safety of offshore oil- and gas-drilling platforms. Unbelievable!

Sadly, as a boating industry, we may have a love-hate relationship with oil. Our products are dependent on it. But its price at the pump can hurt our sales. Our customers need clean, safe waters on which to use our products. Every offshore well is a potential threat to that environment. The BP spill brought painful focus on the impact such an event can have on our businesses. Still, the idea of being energy-independent with cheap gas to please our customers is a good one.

In the end, each of us must make up our mind about where an acceptable risk-reward line should be drawn. Are we now rushing too fast to drill too many wells in too many places? Would a policy of only replacing a completely tapped-out well with a new one make any sense? After all, we are importing far less oil today, we are essentially energy-independent and we have immense natural gas reserves. It’s complicated, sure.

One thing is not, however. To advocate a reduction in safety inspections of blowout preventers and suspend a reputable study of drilling safety while pushing for a dramatic increase in drilling leads me to believe the Interior Department may be more hapless on this whole subject than Larry, Curly and Moe.


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