By Karl Grossman
[A similar Opinion OpEd appeared in the East Hampton Press, page A8, on May 17th, 2017]
Nearly 50 years ago I broke the story of the oil industry’s interest in drilling in the offshore Atlantic. Largely because of moratoria enacted by Congress, it didn’t happen in the U.S. Atlantic in the decades since. But now with President Donald Trump’s having just signed an executive order on offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, it could.
Here in Suffolk, John V. N. Klein of Smithtown was a leader in the opposition to offshore Atlantic drilling—first as presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature and then when he became Suffolk County executive. Earlier, Mr. Klein, a Republican, was Smithtown Town supervisor.
“We’re opening it up,” said Mr. Trump adding that “offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent.”
It was in 1970 that a Montauk fisherman told me that east of Long Island he saw the same kind of ship he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico. As an investigative reporter for the daily Long Island Press, I spent a day calling oil companies to be told by PR people from each that their companies were not involved in searching in the Atlantic. As the day ended and I was leaving the office, there was a return call from a Gulf PR man who said, yes, Gulf was out there looking for oil and gas as part of a “consortium” of 32 oil companies. These included the companies which all day had issued denials. It was an initial experience in oil industry honesty, an oxymoron.
I pursued the story up and down the Atlantic. In 1971, I visited the first drilling rig set up, off Nova Scotia. On the rig were capsules designed to eject workers. A rescue boat went round and round “We treat every foot of hole like a potential disaster,” explained the Shell Canada executive. It was obvious on the rig that offshore drilling is fraught with danger.
As to the booms proclaimed by the oil industry then and now as capable of cleaning up spills, the Shell Canada man said they “just don’t work in over five foot-foot seas.” In Nova Scotia or in the Atlantic off the U.S., five foot seas are common. So the oil could be expected in many, if not most, circumstances to hit shore.
U.S. Department of Interior records I examined acknowledged spillage being chronic in offshore oil drilling. And, it was admitted by the federal government that the Atlantic is a far more problematic place to drill. The President’s Council on Environmental Quality declared:
“The Atlantic is a hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in either the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.”
The 2010 blowout and massive spill from BP Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf provided an exclamation point to the accident-prone, indeed disaster-prone process. It’s drill, baby, spill.
In the wake of Mr. Trump’s order, 16 U.S. senators put forth the Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism (COAST) Anti-Drilling Act which would ban oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic. They include: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Bob Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey;
Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut; Dianne Feinstein of California; Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland; Bill Nelson of Florida; all Democrats; and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
From the House of Representatives, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Miami, declared: “The potential damage to our world-renowned coral reefs, robust fisheries, pristine beaches and tourism-supported small businesses should far outweigh any short-term benefit anticipated in the administration’s plan. Tourism is the driving force behind our state’s economy and offshore drilling threatens the very resources that these visitors come to Florida to enjoy.” .” Congressman Charlie Christ, a former Florida governor, a Democrat, asked Mr. Trump to reverse course and put “the well-being of our coastal communities above oil industry profits.”
In South Carolina, Frank Knapp, president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic, said: “President Trump referred to offshore drilling creating good jobs and showed no concern for those who will lose their jobs due to oil spills and leaks,”
A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit challenging it. These include the League of Conservation Voters—its first lawsuit in its 50 years, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity, Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark said: “We do not need and cannot use the oil that may lie under these waters if we ever hope to meet our nation’s commitment to addressing climate change.”
In fact, the order comes while there is a glut of petroleum in the world—why the price of gasoline at the pump here in Suffolk these days has dropped to $2.45 a gallon and less.
And why spend many millions for exploration and test-drilling for unneeded oil instead of advancing the further implementation of solar and wind energy? These clean, green, renewable sources are the fastest-growing energy sources worldwide.
The only part of the Atlantic off North America where there’s been drilling has been off Nova Scotia, the site of my visit to a rig decades ago. A report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year was headed: “Nova Scotia offshore oil and gas ‘doesn’t look good’ after Shell seals two wells.” It began: “Shell’s decision to seal two exploration wells off Nova Scotia has set back the province’s dream of offshore riches.”
Turns out the dream of a barrel of oil “gold” in the Atlantic could be an illusion.
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books.