Opinion: Offshore Oil Drilling’s Damaging Effects
Updated: Aug 11, 2020
By Cristian Aguilar and Justine Rozenich
The Trump administration released in 2018, its plan to expand offshore drilling to the American Pacific and Atlantic coasts, including Alaska, and the Gulf of Mexico off Florida. The decision was a controversial unifier within the consistently divisive American political climate, coastal states of every creed had a negative pushback.
The uniform reaction is certainly due to the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Indisputably, the largest marine oil spill on record that has caused severe environmental damage and endangered the beaches, wetlands, and estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico. A federal report confirmed that up to 88,522 square miles of sea were closed, and a recent Science Advances journal found that the satellite footprint that was originally used to assess the damage of the oil spill did not account for the invisible and toxic oil that reached west into Texas’ shores and south towards the Florida Keys.
This cemented a negative view towards offshore drilling within the electorate, especially within Florida. A politically volatile state that in 2018 voted in favor of an amendment that would ban offshore drilling for oil and natural gas on state waters. Donald Trump's plan, however, would open 90% of federal coastline for offshore drilling, this constitutes territory that is outside of Florida’s jurisdiction. The unpopular nature of this move has led the administration to delay its plan to reinstate drilling once again off the coast of Florida until after the general election in November, according to four sources who reported this to Politico. This plan had experienced a significant setback when a federal judge in Alaska ruled that President Trump exceeded his authority when he lifted a ban on oil and gas drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, but now the administration has gained the legal capacity to continue with its plan.
Apart from being subterfuge to the democratic will of the nation, the decision will also once again endanger coastal communities and oceanic wildlife to future oil spills. Investigations on the cause of the Deepwater Horizon incident left many companies and factors implicated. A replication of the event would cause irreversible damage to the already weakened marine life and a substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Using Deepwater Horizon as a case study of what may happen in the event of a future oil spill, laypeople could hypothesize effects on marine life. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quantified the effects of the oil spill on wildlife. It found that twenty percent of oceanic juvenile Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, a critically endangered species, present during the oil spill perished due to exposure. Bottlenose dolphins have also experienced a drastic decrease in their population. There was a fifty percent decline in the population of bottlenose dolphins due to a decrease in survival rates and reproductive success. Fishing has also been of low quality in the areas affected by the spill as the population of fish has struggled to reach its previous levels and remains severely contaminated.
Carbon emissions would increase to catastrophic levels. The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan policy institute, used calculations from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Environmental Protection Agency to predict the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would be caused by the plan’s implementation. The data collected shows that if the plan were implemented, 46 billion metric tons of GHG would be added to the World’s atmosphere that is comparable to seven times the current amount emitted by the United States. According to the study, this level of carbon emission would be the equivalent of adding nine times the number of cars that currently exist onto the road for a year.
The future of this plan seems uncertain, but there is a level of action that young activists could take to stop this from happening within their community. As an example, or framework, American activists can look to the actions of groups outside of the United States.
In Norway, back in March 2019, 40,000 youth marched against oil drilling as part of Fridays for Future, an organization founded by Greta Thunberg. They were marching regarding the lawsuit currently circulating called the People vs. Arctic Oil, a.k.a. Nature and Youth & Greenpeace vs. Norway’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy.
Back in 2016, the Norwegian government began giving corporations Arctic oil drilling exploration licenses, giving these corporations the possibility of starting to drill for oil in previously undisturbed Arctic areas in the Bering Sea. Drilling in these areas is extremely dangerous to the environment because these areas are ill-prepared for this major change in the environment, having never been drilled. Furthermore, many fish and birds are put at risk.
These licenses sparked a youth movement, as well as caused a lawsuit filed by youth. The lawsuit was filed by Nature and Youth and Greenpeace, which are two environmental organizations dedicated to promoting a safer, cleaner world. These groups filed a lawsuit against the Norwegian government, citing that the government’s permission for oil companies to drill in this area goes against Article 112 of the Norwegian Constitution, which guarantees “the right of current and future generations to a healthy and sustainable environment,” as well as violates the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, which Norway was a signatory on, agreeing to limit the rise of global temperatures in this century to 1.5 degrees.
The government’s defense was that the issue at hand was regarding morals and was not technically a legal question. This is because the government says it was not responsible for emissions in the legal realm when the oil was exported abroad, so it was an international issue, not a federal one. This is a weak defense provided in response to the youth organizations’ argument, showing the government's desire to get out of this situation.
The lawsuit was originally dismissed back in 2018, but the groups appealed this decision twice, all the way to the Norwegian Supreme Court, where it is currently awaiting trial. While there is no foreseeing the decision of the court, the lawsuit has gotten much attention from all over the world, and even Greta Thunberg has donated to it! Regardless of the decision, this lawsuit is an important one and will set a precedent for countless other youth-led lawsuits to come.