While it happened 10 years ago, many remember it like it was yesterday. Sea turtles and seabirds covered in thick sludge, struggling just to move and breathe. Fishing communities sidelined, unable to cast their nets and secure their livelihoods. These searing images were all a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 people and spewed an estimated 210 million gallons of oil and 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants into the sea.
The tragedy killed hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, marine mammals and birds, and, to this day, left an area of the gulf seafloor twenty times the size of Manhattan polluted. This Monday marks the tenth anniversary and, as we observe this sad occasion, we are forced to ask ourselves: Have we learned from the tragedy? Sadly, it appears many current leaders in Washington have not.
Nothing exemplifies this disregard more than a radical plan released two years ago by the Trump administration. The plan would open nearly all of America’s coastal waters to drilling, including all areas off the coast of North Carolina. The draft proposal was met with instant resistance and opposition from our coastal communities. Commercial fishermen, representatives of the tourism industry, naval veterans, and faith leaders spoke out against it.
In fact, more than 29 mayors, 200 community organizations and local businesses, a bipartisan group of congressional representatives, Governor Roy Cooper and thousands of concerned citizens have expressed their opposition to these plans.
Despite this, our federal government has taken further steps to threaten our coastlines. Most notably, last year, the Trump administration gutted safeguards put in place to prevent another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon spill.
With these sorts of actions, more than ever, North Carolinians must remember we have good reason to be concerned about the potential of offshore drilling on our coast. Drilling is inherently risky and there is no way to guarantee against spills. Between 2001 and 2015, there were more than 700 offshore petroleum spills that discharged at least 4.93 million barrels off U.S. coasts. One of the primary causes was hurricanes - which scientists say are becoming stronger. Reports also show that the damages caused by offshore drilling are not limited to ocean waters, but also carry impacts onshore.
These catastrophes can do everlasting damage. For example, studies show that biodiversity around the Deepwater Horizon wellhead has been greatly reduced. Smaller spills pose serious dangers and have a lasting impact on marine ecosystems and the coastal communities that depend on them as well. An oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that began in 2004 when an oil platform sank during Hurricane Ivan, has been slowly leaking millions of barrels for so long that it now verges on becoming one of the worst offshore disasters in U.S. history.
Keep in mind that the ocean economy contributes more than $1.8 billion to North Carolina’s economy, supporting more than 41,000 jobs in the state.
What’s troubling is that we don’t need to rely on this type of fossil fuel extraction. Here in North Carolina, we are working hard to build a cleaner, brighter future. That means powering our lives with energy from renewable sources, not dirty oil. At a time when a growing number of states are committing to cleaner transportation and 100 percent clean energy, just as Virginia did last week, our state should as well. Now is not the time to decimate our coastline with polluting fossil fuel infrastructure that will haunt us for decades.
To protect our coast, we need vocal opposition from our federal delegation. In 2015, Senator Thom Tillis’ first speech on the Senate floor was a passionate call to open up our coast to offshore exploration and drilling. Sadly, since then, he has yet to heed the desires of coastal communities and speak out against offshore drilling. We must change his mind -- and those of others who have forgotten just what oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster have wrought.
Director, Environment North Carolina
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard, Public Domain