Bills to permanently block oil exploration off West Coast introduced

heceta-head-lighthouse-near-florence-or-courtesy-wikimedia
Ocean waters near Heceta Head lighthouse in Oregon would be among those protected from fossil fuel exploration activity if a bill introduced by West Coast senators becomes law. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

California’s senior U.S. senator has introduced a bill that would permanently block fossil fuel exploration on the outer continental shelf along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

The measure, sponsored by veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was introduced Jan. 4.

In her comments on the Senate floor on the day she introduced S.31 Feinstein highlighted the huge economic impact of coastal counties in California, explaining that they produce 80 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, and said the likely close proximity of any drilling to the beaches makes offshore energy exploration too dangerous.

“The fact is that those of us on the Pacific coast do not want any further offshore oil or gas development,” Feinstein said.

Wildlife conservation concerns are a powerful argument against energy exploration off the Pacific Coast. Among the marine animals that may be adversely affected by oil and natural gas drilling are a variety of sea birds and fish, orcas, otters, salmon, seals, sea lions, and migratory whale species (including blue whales).

Those wildlife resources have previously been harmed by oil extraction in the Pacific.

In 1969 a spill near Santa Barbara polluted the Pacific Ocean with about 3.36 million gallons of crude. That incident remains the most severe oil spill in California’s history and the third-most severe spill in American history.

The Santa Barbara oil spill killed thousands of sea birds and many dolphins, elephant seals, and sea lions. The mortality rate among small marine organisms in the inter-tidal zone was as high as 90 percent.

santa-barbara-oil-spill-map-courtesy-wikimedia
This graphic shows the extent of ocean and beach area impacted by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Map courtesy Wikimedia.

Despite the warning provided by the Santa Barbara oil spill, there are still 24 oil drilling platforms operating in ocean areas off the California coast.

In 1994 the Golden State’s legislature largely  precluded any future drilling leases in the six kilometer-wide band of Pacific waters under its regulatory control. The California Coastal Sanctuary Act allows leasing only if the “State Lands Commission determines that oil and gas deposits contained in tidelands are being drained by means of wells upon adjacent federal lands and leasing of the tidelands for oil or gas production is in the best interest of the State.”

The California State Senate passed a bill in 2015 that would have permanently banned all oil leases off the state’s coast. S.B. 788 was not considered by the state’s General Assembly (a body akin to the House of Representatives in most other states).

California’s State Lands Commission had stopped authorizing nearly all new leases after the Santa Barbara spill.

No fossil fuel exploration in waters of the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast subject to the federal Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act has occurred since 1981. Congress included bans on leasing off California’s coast, as well as offshore of several East Coast states, in annual appropriations bills until 2008.

U.S. Presidents also included California’s (along with Oregon’s and Washington’s) coastal waters in exclusions from leasing included in executive orders. Presidents George H.W. Bush, in June 1990, and William J. Clinton, in June 1998, imposed a ban through 2012.

President George W. Bush lifted that ban by revoking those executive orders on July 14,  2008. He also said that he would veto any bill that continued the practice of banning leases off the coast of California and several other states.

President Barack Obama’s administration has returned to the long-time practice of keeping energy exploration activities away from California’s coast. The most recent five-year leasing plan for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management precludes any leasing off the Pacific coast of the continental U.S. between 2017-2022.

The factors weighing against energy exploration off the coasts of Oregon and Washington are largely the same as in California.

According to one 2015 report, Oregon’s rural coast region had more than 21,000 jobs directly dependent on tourism, which also generated more than $1.8 billion in economic activity in that part of the state.

As for fishing, the value of the Beaver State’s commercial onshore fisheries was more than $136 million in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, while spending on recreational fishing in coastal counties exceeded $68 million in 2014.

Washington’s coastal economy is similarly dependent on tourism and fishing. In 2011 tourism and recreation contributed about $3.4 billion to the Evergreen State’s “ocean economy,” while fishing is responsible for at least 16,000 jobs and half of billion dollars of economic activity in Washington.

Pacific waters off the coasts of the two northwestern states have not generally been considered likely to produce significant oil resources. In 1964 the Department of Interior issued leases for 2,400 square kilometers of ocean areas off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Oil companies drilled 13 test wells before those leases expired in 1969.

In 1977 the Department of Interior ranked Oregon and Washington as being lowest among all potential lease areas in the country for “resource potential.” That assessment was essentially confirmed by a 2009 report by Environment America and Sierra Club, which concluded that the amount of oil and natural gas off the Oregon and Washington coasts is “miniscule.”

“The planning area is estimated to contain (i.e., undiscovered economically recoverable resource) approximately 0.3 billion barrels of oil and 1.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas at recent price estimates, representing about 0.6% of total OCS resources for both oil and gas. At recent prices and usage, the oil and natural gas economically available from the Washington/Oregon planning area could supply the nation with 15 days of oil and 20 days of natural gas with a value of $26 billion.”

Oregon and Washington have nevertheless moved to toughen their laws on offshore energy development.

In 2007 Oregon imposed a three-year moratorium on new exlporatory activity and then, in 2010, extended it for 10 more  years.

Washington law forbids marine oil exploration only in the area “extending from mean high tide seaward three miles along the Washington coast from Cape Flattery south to Cape Disappointment, nor in Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay, and the Columbia river downstream from the Longview bridge . . .”

Feinstein’s co-sponsors include all of the senators representing the three west coast states covered by her bill: Democrats Kamala Harris of California, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington.

The California senator’s effort to ban drilling off the Pacific coast is not the first attempt she has made. She has introduced similar bills in several previous Congresses. Nor is her bill the first Pacific coast state oil drilling ban to be co-sponsored by West Coast senators.

S.31 has been assigned to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee for consideration. Cantwell and Wyden are members of that committee.

Similar legislation, known as the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Democrat Jared Huffman of California and 13 co-sponsors. They include California Democratic Reps. John Garamendi, Derek Kilmer, Barbara Lee, Ted Lieu, Alan Lowenthal, Doris Matsui, Jimmy Panetta, Scott Peters, Jackie Speier, Eric Swalwell, and Mike Thompson, Oregon Democrats Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, and Washington Democrat Suzan DelBene.

 

Obama administration denies seismic testing permits, needed for oil exploration, in bid to protect marine life

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decided Friday to turn aside six applications for permits that would allow seismic testing for fossil fuel deposits beneath the Atlantic Ocean.

BOEM, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior, specifically cited the possibility that sonic harm might come to ocean animals as a reason for its action.

“In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new airgun seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” the agency’s director, Abigail Ross Hopper, said in a statement.

BOEM also pointed to the recently-finalized 2017-2022 plan for leasing mineral deposits on the nation’s outer continental shelf. That plan excludes the two regions in the Atlantic Ocean in which the seismic testing would occur.

The applicants denied permits for geological and geophysical testing included TGS, GX Technology Corp., WesternGeco LLC, CGG Services (US), Inc., Spectrum Geo, Inc., and PGS. All six entities primarily serve the oil and gas industry by assisting with exploration activities.

acoustic-survey-diagram-courtesy-boem
This graphic shows how seismic surveying at sea is done. Map courtesy U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Geological and geophysical surveys using airguns are performed because they assist fossil fuel exploration firms to determine an area’s stratigraphy, variety and location of rocks, and geologic structure.

Airguns allow observation to a depth of several thousand meters below the ocean floor. They explode from a position behind an exploration vessel every 10-15 seconds.

BOEM had previously consulted with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, as required by the Endangered Species Act, during the course of preparing an environmental impact statement on its Atlantic seismic surveying permit program. There are  several marine species in the area in which the seismic surveys would have been conducted that are on the federal list of threatened and endangered species.

“Sonic blasting causes tremendous harm to endangered whales and fish,” Michael Jasny, the director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at Natural Resources Defense Council, said.

Jasny went on to explain that use of seismic airguns “is known to disrupt foraging and other vital behaviors in endangered whales, displace fish, and harm commercial fisheries over vast areas of the ocean.”

BOEM had previously estimated that issuance of the six permits would result in millions of incidents of harassment of whales and dolphins during a five-year period. In the case of sperm whales, it is possible that hundreds of individuals could lose their ability to hunt, navigate in the ocean, and communicate with others in the species if the seismic surveys proceeded.

BOEM has acknowledged that the airguns can cause hearing loss and death in whales and fish.

 

Conservation congress begins in Hawaii

IUCN World Congress 2016 logo.png

A quadrennial gathering of government leaders and civic activists aimed at developing an agenda for environmental protection got underway in Hawaii Wednesday and President Barack Obama was in Honolulu to welcome the event to the United States.

More than 8,300 delegates are participating in the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Congress. They represent 184 countries.

They are expected to focus on four key priorities: climate change, ocean conservation, private investment in conservation activities, and wildlife trafficking.

Obama put the spotlight on climate change during his address Wednesday to the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, which is also happening in Honolulu:

“When it comes to climate change, there is a dire possibility of us getting off course, and we can’t allow that to happen. That’s why our united efforts are so important. Government has a role to play, but so do scientists and inventors and investors, all working to revolutionize clean energy production. Entrepreneurs and academics and leaders in this room are collaborating across continents. And everyday citizens of the world are going to have to push their own communities to adopt smarter practices, and to push those of us in positions of power to be less concerned with special interests and more concerned about the judgment of future generations.”

The first full day of events  will occur on Friday. Among them will be a press conference that discusses the findings of the Great Elephant Census, a project that counted 93 percent of all elephants in Africa.

The GEC found that far fewer African elephants than previously thought are roaming the continent, with only about 352,000 remaining in all African countries covered by the study. That represents an estimated 30 percent decline between 2007 and 2014.

Other events will highlight updates to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, report on the extent to which the planet’s oceans are warming, and name new Marine Hope Spots.

The latter are areas of the oceans designated by the conservation advocacy organization Mission Blue as being particularly needful or worthy of protection. The concept was proposed by oceanographer Sylvia Earle in a 2009 TED talk.

According to a description of the program posted on the Mission Blue website, Marine Hope Spots are those that exhibit:

  • Particular populations of rare, threatened or endemic species
  • A site with potential to reverse damage from negative human impacts
  • Spectacles of nature, e.g., major migration corridors or spawning grounds
  • Significant historical, cultural or spiritual values
  • Particular economic importance to the community

Delegates are also expected to vote on a number of motions aimed at putting the IUCN World Congress on record in support of particular policies. Those are expected to include a plea for all nations close domestic markets to ivory, increase protection for pangolin species, improve forest conservation practices, and work toward improvements in the system for preserving biological diversity outside of national borders.

The last IUCN World Congress was held in 2012 on Jeju Island, South Korea.