Energy from oil and other fossil fuels has been a driving force in our economy since the industrial revolution took off in the 18th century.
For this reason, they have also become a driving force in politics and government. Now officials struggle to find a balance between expanding their economies and protecting the environment.
President Barack Obama recently approved the expansion of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Leases for oil and gas exploration across 23.8 million acres of the Gulf were auctioned off to drilling companies. Additionally, a planned five-year program for further leasing intends to simultaneously develop domestic energy production and protect sensitive resources.
Some see this decision as inconsistent with Obama’s green agenda for addressing climate change. This brought his administration under fire from environmental groups and activists.
Critics say that it’s impossible to properly combat climate change while expanding oil drilling in the Gulf. Coastal drilling poses broad environmental risks to the atmosphere, ocean water, marine life and coastal human settlements.
Danger on the Horizon
Last year, at the UN’s COP21 climate talks in Paris, France, Obama made a pledge on behalf of the U.S. to make our best contributions to a global effort to combat climate change. This included limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Critics of his administration’s decision to expand offshore drilling say it goes against this pledge due to the long-term dangers that removing fossil fuels from the ground poses to the environment.
Extreme weather and flooding recently ravaged Louisiana communities along the Gulf Coast. It wiped out tens of thousands of homes and killed more than a dozen people.
Scientists expect climate change to intensify global weather. Severe storms, heat, drought and other extreme weather conditions will increase. These conditions will not only affect Americans living along the Gulf coast but also the lives and vital infrastructure of people in communities worldwide.
The Link Between Fossil Fuel and Gulf Flooding
So just how does offshore drilling lead to severe weather in the Gulf of Mexico?
When people burn fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal, they release harmful greenhouse gasses that warm both the atmosphere and ocean waters. This speeds up the process of evaporation, providing storms with additional water to dump as they pass by.
During the recent low-pressure storm that dumped more than two feet of rain on Louisiana in less than two days, the National Weather Service in New Orleans measured atmospheric moisture and detected record-high levels.
Burning the fossil fuels contained within the newly approved waters would release 32.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide, which is roughly equivalent to running 9,500 coal-fired power plants for a year straight.
Weather Is Not the Only Danger
The Gulf is no stranger to routine spills from oil rigs, transports, and pipelines. Recent leaks dumped tens of thousands of gallons of oil into coastal waters. Larger disasters spilled hundreds of millions of gallons.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster is the largest recorded fatal event for marine mammals and sea turtles. This disaster occurred just a few years ago in 2010.
The spills don’t just affect wildlife, however — people become ill, and the impact on fisheries and tourism affects their livelihood. Offshore oil workers have a fatality risk that is seven times higher than the national average.
An Indirect Threat
The dangerous effects of offshore drilling are not all directly caused by the drilling itself.
Oil and gas exploration is also harmful, and ocean researchers are worried about waters in the Atlantic Ocean cleared as suitable for seismic airgun testing. This practice employed by oil drilling companies locates oil under the seabed.
Seismic airgun testing disturbs the communication and navigation abilities of bottlenose dolphins and several species of whale. All of these species have live in the waters off the Eastern seaboard. If testing is approved, up to 138,000 whales and dolphins could be harmed.
Leaving most areas that Obama has approved for leasing untouched would avert much of this potential harm to wildlife and coastal living, and would strengthen our nation’s ability to protect the planet from the worst effects of climate change.