On August 21st, the Thai based energy company PTTEP announced that a “crude oil gas leak incident occurred” in the Timor Sea about 155 miles northwest of Western Australia. The energy company’s press released continued that “the size of the spill is not known. Aproximately 40 barrels of oil were discharged from the wellhead in the initial incident.” In the ensuing month, it has become clear that this oil spill is much more serious than initially thought:
- As of September 25th, photos from NASA satellites document that the oil slicks and sheen from the spill covered 9,870 square miles, an area even bigger than the state of Vermont. Part of the oil sheen has been moving perilously close to the Cartier Island Marine Reserve.
- According to conservative estimates by the World Wildlife Fund, the rig has been leaking 400 barrels a day — over 14,000 barrels since late August. That equates to about 600,000 gallons of oil.
- When the spill was first reported, the government of Australia predicted it would take 7 weeks to clean up. Already, it has been 5 weeks and the spill isn’t contained.
This devastating spill may be a world away but US ocean waters, including Georges Bank and the rest of the Gulf of Maine, are also at risk because they no longer are protected from the devastating impacts of oil and gas extraction. As a parting gift before leaving office, President Bush lifted the Presidential Moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on the Outer Continental Shelf that had been in place since 1990. On September 30, 2008, Congress followed suit and lifted a longstanding legislative ban on offshore oil and gas leasing as part of a large government operations appropriations bill. As a result, important habitat in the Gulf of Maine, including Georges Bank — one of the world’s premier fishing grounds — is at risk of industrial scale fossil fuel energy development.
As the Saudi oil fields are tapped out, there is increased pressure to drill in remote areas of the ocean. For example, at the beginning of September, BP announced a “giant oil discovery” 35,055 feet below the Gulf of Mexico seafloor, which itself is already 4,132 feet below the surface of the ocean. In an ironic twist of fate, just as the ocean is beginning to bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change (see my earlier blog post on ocean acidification), oil companies are stepping up efforts to locate and drill for oil and gas under the seafloor.
Clearly we need energy — but how do we design a sustainable, climate neutral ocean energy solution that will not put important marine wildlife, habitat and ecosystems at risk? As Greg Watson, then a VP at the Mass Technology Collaborative, noted, New England (and Massachusetts in particular) is “the ‘Saudi Arabia of Wind.'” Of course, we need to responsibly tap this renewable resource — we can’t build wind farms wholesale across the region just because there is a lot of wind on the ocean. Rather, we need to engage in a thorough marine spatial planning process whereby different human uses and ecological resources are identified and mapped and responsible renewable energy development is sited in a way that doesn’t create unreasonable impacts on those activities or natural resources. Massachusetts is in the process of doing just that — and has released the first in the nation Draft Ocean Management Plan. In Maine, the governor appointed an Ocean Energy Task Force to evaluate how to develop offshore renewable energy. Rhode Island is working on an Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) in part to promote offshore renewable energy development. Finally, at the federal level, President Obama issued an Executive Memorandum calling for a national ocean policy and marine spatial planning framework. CLF is working on all of these issues.
Imagine if all of Vermont were covered in an oil spill. Well it has been over a month and an equally large spill in the Timor Sea hasn’t been contained. Oil and gas drilling is still a risky business and, thanks to former President Bush and Congress, these projects are allowable in US ocean waters. A concerted effort is needed to make oil and gas drilling old news. We need to usher in a new era of responsible, climate friendly, renewable ocean energy development. Help CLF make this a reality!
What can you do to help promote responsible marine renewable energy Development?