NOAA urges caution in expanded offshore drilling

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has called on the Interior Department to proceed cautiously with plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, pointing to the need to protect fisheries, marine habitat and coastal communities.

Late last month NOAA filed comments [pdf] on the Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2010-2015 from Interior's Minerals Management Service. The plan proposes 12 large areas for new federal oil and gas leases, including three each in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

NOAA proposes buffer zones to ban drilling "around national marine sanctuaries, Habitat Areas of Particular Concern, Critical Habitat for endangered and threatened species, major fishing grounds and to provide visual buffers to coastal areas dependent upon tourism."

It also says MMS understates the expected frequency of and risk from spills, noting among other things the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The 2005 storms together caused 124 offshore spills that dumped more than 743,000 gallons of pollution into the ocean, according to MMS [pdf]. The impact of those storms on some offshore operations continues today, according to NOAA:
Some of the damaged rigs and pipelines damaged during the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons continue to have episodic releases, and repairs have not been fully completed.
Besides oil and gas drilling, President Obama's Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, has also been promoting non-conventional offshore energy developments such as wind farms. But NOAA says the department's renewable energy planning is vague and not coordinated with oil and gas planning, leading to potential problems.

"To avoid conflict, the Obama White House has thus far straddled the fence without taking firm stands on the underlying elements of a coherent oceans policy," says Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which issued a press release this week drawing attention to NOAA's comments. "Decision time is approaching, however. If NOAA's warnings are not heeded Interior's offshore leasing plans will again be ensnared in litigation."

Last July, former President George W. Bush rescinded an executive ordersigned by his father, President George H.W. Bush, that banned drillingin federal waters off the East and West Coasts, the Florida Gulf Coastand Alaska's Northern Aleutian Basin. In turn, Congress allowed a quarter-century ban on expanded offshore drilling to expire last fall.

The debate over offshore drilling is also heating up at the state level. In Florida, a statewide forum to discuss lifting the moratorium on drilling in state waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is set for Oct. 28.