Editor’s Note: Pete Stauffer is Environmental Director of the Surfrider Foundation, non-profit organizations dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, waves and beaches. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
The oil spill disaster unfolding off the coast of Orange County, California, is just the latest example of the damaging effects of offshore drilling. The spill, estimated by officials to be at least 144,000 gallons, is devastating to birds, fish, marine mammals and other wildlife, as well as to beaches and coastal wetlands. For those of us lucky enough to live near this iconic stretch of coastline, the sight of it awash in oil is heartbreaking.
The closing of miles of beaches and fishing grounds is threatening Orange County’s ocean recreation and tourism economy, which is valued at more than $2.6 billion annually, according to the National Ocean Economics Program, which compiles data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. From restaurants and hotels to surf shops, local business owners are feeling the immediate effects of beach closures and event cancellations as they face an uncertain future.
Hanging in the balance is a way of life enjoyed by millions of residents and visitors. This is an environmental disaster which should not have happened. There is a way to prevent it from happening again: stop drilling offshore.
In the coming days, government agencies and the energy company operating the ruptured pipeline must move swiftly in cleaning up the oil spill, which stretches from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach and will likely be spread further by wind and currents. Their priority must be to prevent oil from further damaging coastal areas and wetlands, using booms, skimmers and other means to keep the spill contained.
In the longer term, the spill response requires a comprehensive cleanup of affected beaches, wetlands and marshes, which could take months or even years.
Amplify Energy, the Houston-based company which owns the pipeline, must be held accountable for its legal obligation to support necessary environmental mitigation.
As past oil spill disasters have shown, cleanup efforts can often lag after the media attention fades, leaving communities with degraded natural resources and impaired public health. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency due to the spill.
Sadly, this devastating incident is part of a larger pattern of offshore drilling harming our coastal environment and the communities that depend on them. According to the federal government, there have been at least 44 oil spills that have each released more than 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) of oil into US waters since 1969.
These major disasters, including BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, can cause catastrophic effects to both the environment and economy that persist for decades.
Oil spills are not the only way offshore drilling damages public resources and communities. It harms the environment through every phase of drilling. From exploratory seismic blasting that disturbs marine life to routine operations that release polluted “drilling muds” into the water, offshore drilling is widely destructive. It also contributes to carbon emissions as our nation and world grapple with the effects of climate change.
That’s why it is long overdue for our federal leaders to permanently ban new offshore drilling in US waters. Earlier this year, leaders in Congress introduced a package of bills to do just that in the Atlantic, Pacific, Eastern Gulf of Mexico and Arctic Ocean. Unfortunately, this important legislation has stalled. Our leaders must listen to the voices of communities, businesses and tribes from coast to coast who want to see the end of offshore drilling.
To date, more than 390 municipalities, 2,500 elected officials, 55,000 businesses and 500,000 fishing families have formally opposed new offshore oil and gas development. This bipartisan opposition was galvanized by the Trump administration’s proposal in 2018 to dramatically expand offshore drilling, and continues to grow to this day. Such grassroots opposition is buttressed by coastal states that have banned offshore drilling in their waters, including California, Oregon, Virginia, Florida, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire and Maine.
It’s time for our federal leaders to take immediate action to ban new offshore drilling. While the Biden administration has signaled its desire to phase out new oil and gas leasing, Congress must ultimately take action to permanently protect US waters. Doing so will protect our nation’s coastal environment and economies, and address the climate emergency threatening the future of our planet.