Opinion: Atlantic Coast Drilling Inspires "All of Above" Reactions

Environmental Commentary by Karen Hosler

After six tumultuous years in office, President Obama seems to fashion himself a wheeler-dealer.

Apparently in the hope of gaining Republican support for his campaign to fight climate change by curbing the use of coal, Obama has granted the appeals of Republican-led or Republican-leaning states to open the Atlantic coastline to drilling for oil and natural gas.

He calls it his “all-of-the-above energy strategy.”

Check with Las Vegas for the odds of its tactical success. But as this trade-off between economic gain and environmental damage is being negotiated with Virginia and its southern neighbors, Obama’s decision to exclude the Maryland coast from drilling rights won’t protect the Chesapeake Bay if things go bad.

“The waters off the mouth of the Bay are indistinguishable both biologically and hydrologically from the Chesapeake,” said Kim Coble of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “An oil spill could destroy an entire year class of blue crabs. The economic impact from any spill could be huge, hurting commercial watermen, recreational fishing and tourism.”

What’s more, this all-of-the-above approach seems counter-productive to Obama’s declared goal of combating climate change.

Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said rising sea level along Virginia’s coast are already flooding homes and businesses, and threatening Naval Station Norfolk.

“Why are we talking about drilling for more of the fossil fuels causing our seas to rise,” he asked, “when we have vast renewable energy resources waiting to be developed?”

The answer seems to be because the governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, joined by the oil and gas industry, lobbied hard for what they see as a speedier economic payoff.

A leader in that effort, North Carolina Gov. Pat Conroy, was quick to offer guarded praise of Obama’s plan to allow drilling on the Atlantic seaboard.

“Responsible exploration and development of oil and gas reserves off our coast would create thousands of good paying jobs, spur activity in a host of associated industries, generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and move America closer to energy independence,” Conroy said.

The political strength of this argument is clear. Consider its flip-flop endorsement by Terry McAuliffe, who in 2013 as the former Democratic National Committee Chairman was positioning himself for a successful bid to become Virginia’s governor. The Old Dominion’s two Democratic senators are also considered supporters of the drilling plan.

Obama’s Atlantic Coast drilling gambit seems a concession largely aimed at winning him some relief from GOP complaints that he is seeking to protect two-thirds of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska from drilling.

But responding to the local governors’ appeal also offered Obama the chance to renew a bid to battle climate change launched early in his administration; he would trade expanded drilling rights to gain tougher regulations on coal-fired power plants.

That campaign collapsed after the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico offered a horrific reminder of the dangers of drilling. The Deepwater disaster still haunts the offshore drilling debate.

While it’s not yet clear how powerful that specter remains, Chesapeake Bay advocates have been quick to invoke those memories.

“I am absolutely opposed to offshore drilling and always will be,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.). “As we saw after the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, when oil starts to leak, it knows no boundaries. Drilling off the coast of Virginia and other states along the Eastern seaboard could pose great risks to the coastal economy of Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay.”

As public hearings on the Atlantic Coast drilling proposal begin this week, Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, is calling on residents to make their concerns known.

“There’s a lot of confusion when you have an area that has not been at risk for almost 30 years,” she said. “People here are just waking up to what they may be facing.”

Larry Hogan, Maryland’s new Republican governor, seems to have adopted the rhetoric of Obama’s energy-plus-environment campaign with no real commitment.

“Governor Hogan supports an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach to making energy more affordable for Maryland families—as long as these efforts can be accomplished in an environmentally safe way,” his office said in response to requests for his view on Atlantic coast oil drilling.

So, maybe Obama has hit upon a bipartisan solution after all. The danger is that it won’t protect the environment nearly as much as it will protect political hind ends.

Karen Hosler writes from Annapolis, Md. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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