Suffolk Closeup: Drill, baby … spill?

President Barack Obama inauguration photo.
President Barack Obama inauguration photo.

Despite the 2010 offshore oil drilling disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, despite the U.S. suddenly becoming the top oil producer in the world and despite decades of opposition, President Barack Obama is moving to open up the offshore Atlantic to oil and gas drilling.

In doing so, he has been using the precise words of the oil industry — he is for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy. “The use of oil industry talking points by the president indicates how ingrained and powerful the fossil fuel industry is in the U.S.’s energy conversation,” charges Polluterwatch, a blog on the Greenpeace website.

Last month, Mr. Obama gave the go-ahead for use of “sonic cannons” to locate oil and gas deposits beneath the Atlantic floor from Delaware to Florida. His “announcement,” noted the Associated Press, “is the first real step toward what could be a transformation in coastal states … to support a new energy infrastructure” and “it dismayed environmentalists and people who owe their livelihoods to fisheries and tourism. The cannons create noise pollution in waters shared by whales, dolphins and turtles, sending sound waves many times louder than a jet engine reverberating through the deep every 10 seconds for weeks at a time.”

The effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are still reverberating in and along the Gulf of Mexico, despite British Petroleum shelling out billions of dollars for damages and unleashing a barrage of TV commercials claiming everything is O.K.

Meanwhile, it was announced this year that the U.S. has become the world’s largest oil producer, overtaking Saudi Arabia. “U.S. production of crude oil … surpassed all other countries this year with daily output exceeding 11 million barrels in the first quarter,” the Bank of America said in a report last month.

Now there’s news of the drive to exploit the offshore Atlantic, among the most treacherous places to drill, for more of the stuff. We can’t leave what’s there for future centuries of medical research or plastics produced with petroleum: It’s going to be used up now to gas up cars and further contribute to global warming.

Mr. Obama’s stance would reverse decades of moratoriums imposed by Congress on offshore oil drilling along the East Coast.

As to the dangers of drilling in the offshore Atlantic, the President’s Council on Environmental Quality stated in a report issued exactly 40 years ago that it is a “hostile environment for oil and gas operations. Storm and seismic conditions may be more severe than in the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico.” A major spill along the Atlantic coast, the 1974 report declared, “could devastate the areas affected.”

It was four years earlier that as a reporter for the daily Long Island Press, I broke the story of the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic and received a lesson in oil industry honesty (an oxymoron). I got a tip from a fisherman in Montauk who said he had seen in the ocean east of Montauk the same sort of vessel as the boats he observed searching for oil when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.

I spent the day telephoning oil companies. PR people for each said their companies were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. But at day’s end, as I was walking out of the office, there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf saying, yes, Gulf was involved in exploring for oil in the Atlantic. Gulf, he said, had been working in a “consortium” of 32 oil companies doing the searching. These included the companies that all day issued denials.

I traveled for the story, including a visit, with a contingent of Suffolk County officials, to the first drilling rig set up in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia. A rescue boat went around and around as the executive from Shell Canada explained: “We treat every foot of hole as a potential disaster” because an oil well blow-out, a gusher, is one thing on land and another entirely on water. The Shell Canada man acknowledged that curtains, booms and other devices the oil industry claims clean up ocean spills “just don’t work in over 5–foot seas.”

In offshore oil drilling, spills are inevitable. Sarah Palin, as a vice presidential candidate, shouted: “Drill, Baby, Drill.” In reality, it’s “Drill, Baby, Spill.” Not too incidentally, in that 2008 election campaign, Mr. Obama opposed expanded offshore oil drilling. He has flipped.

What’s to be done? The Town of Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina in June became the first East Coast municipality to officially challenge offshore Atlantic drilling. Suffolk County should again join in. There is opposition among some members of Congress. There is grassroots opposition.

“We cannot allow this to become our future,” said Mary Ann Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization. There are many “energy alternatives now and the time for a change in direction is now.”