The Future of Oil and Water

The explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig brings into sharp focus not only a tragic loss of life but also the fragmented and inadequate way in which we manage and protect the nation's critical marine resources and the fragile ocean environment. Scientifically sound and precautionary polices to reconcile the needs of safety, energy security, sustainable fisheries and environmental protection have become urgent.

Even as families and friends of the dead and injured must deal with their losses, others must try to cap, siphon off and dispose of the escaping oil, because the consequences wait for nobody. And neither does planning for the future. Coastal communities, commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism and the marine ecosystem itself remain at risk from this event and future such disasters.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was actually drilling an exploratory well. And although reports initially indicated a small spill, it now seems clear this will be one of the worst offshore drilling disasters in U.S. history, not only in terms of life and limb but also with respect to environmental and economic consequences.

We have learned much from spills like the Exxon Valdez, about how oil affects marine life, ecosystems, coastal communities, fisheries and subsistence economies. For one, significant oil still remains along the rocky beaches of Prince William Sound, more than 20 years later. Further, research has shown that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - components of crude oil that are highly resistant to weathering - are also highly toxic to marine life. For example, fish larvae exposed to concentrations in the parts per billion range - equivalent to a drop of water in a swimming pool - show developmental deformities and reduced survival. So while we naturally focus on the images of oiled seabirds and contaminated beaches, these effects portray just the surface, not what occurs down to the ocean floor.

Indeed, we understand little about the full range of impacts from using potentially harmful chemicals to disperse massive quantities of oil throughout the water column, or from burning it on the surface, where it contributes to both air and water pollution. Making the problem of an oil spill less visible doesn't mean the issue has been solved or the danger averted.

As the administration and Congress investigate this accident they will likely identify numerous ways to increase drilling safety. But key decisions on if and how to proceed with future oil and gas development should also include thoughtful measures to protect our marine environment and coastal economies.

First, we must be extremely selective about where to drill. Special places, like the rich fishing grounds of Georges Bank, off New England, and Bristol Bay, in Alaska, should be off limits. President Obama recently removed Bristol Bay - temporarily - from threat of incursion, but Congress should now provide permanent protection for regions where the costs and risks of drilling exceed likely benefits.

It's also instructive that in a recent decision to allow Shell to drill in the Arctic Ocean, the Minerals Management Service said the probability of an oil spill at exploration was "insignificant." But the Deepwater Horizon disaster should now prompt considerably greater caution about drilling in such places, which pose immeasurably more hostile conditions.

Furthermore, royalties from offshore development already return substantial sums to the Treasury. Since we obtain oil and gas from our oceans at considerable risk all around, it's reasonable that a portion of the revenue be reinvested in ocean and coastal conservation and management. Safe extraction of nonrenewable resources should maintain, enhance and insure the renewable bounty of the sea.

Finally, we need a national policy that will integrate decisions about offshore development - for both renewable and nonrenewable energy - with considerations not only of safety and security but also commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, shipping and the invaluable ecosystem services provided by healthy oceans. The administration is currently considering a report from an interagency task force, which recommended just such a vehicle.

All uses of the ocean should be considered through rigorous, scientifically valid assessments of the potential impacts and benefits. If offshore oil and gas development continues to be a part of the picture it should not be at the expense of either safety or the other economic and environmental values our oceans provide.

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