Offshore Oil – The Next Keystone

Offshore Oil – The Next Keystone

By guest blogger David Helvarg, Author and Environmental Activist


So what do conservative Congressmen Curt Clawson of Florida and Mark Sanford of South Carolina, liberal Congressman Sam Farr of California, climate activist Bill McKibben, a former petroleum engineer, an evangelical minister and a surfer all have in common? No, it’s not a joke. They all spoke out against offshore oil and gas drilling at our D.C. press conference for the Sea Party Coalition on November 4. The Sea Party aims to make opposition to proposed offshore drilling a major issue in the 2016 election.

President Obama’s decision two days later to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline after seven years of polarized debate, and the pushback it received, increases the likelihood that energy and the environment will play a prominent role in the upcoming election. And in the wake of the recent terrorist atrocity in Paris (followed by similar outrages in Mali and Nigeria) the Paris Climate Summit and what comes out of that will likely further polarize the elections and challenge the Republican Party’s climate change position of denial. My hope is that it will also mark the beginning of a global commitment to end our dangerous oil addiction that both funds terrorism and threatens the planet.

For my complete analysis of our Sea Party event under an 85-foot life sized blue whale see my article “Fish don’t like oil spills and neither do I”: Finally, something environmentalists and conservatives can agree on,” in Salon magazine.



On November 19, Oceana, the Southern Environmental Law Center and other environmental groups invited business people and locally elected leaders to Washington D.C. to meet with the Obama administration and members of Congress to talk about their opposition to offshore drilling in states that have been targeted for acoustic surveying and drilling (and inevitable spilling).

After Shell Oil hit a dry hole in the Chukchi Sea and announced it was giving up fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic Ocean (for now) and the Obama administration cancelled two other pending oil lease sales off our Northern coast (see Blue Notes #140) two strategies seem to have emerged among those battling offshore oil. One is focusing on the hope that President Obama, increasingly committed to addressing climate change and leaving behind an action-based legacy, will reverse course in the final days of his administration and also withdraw his proposed Atlantic lease sales.

The focus of this work combines inside the beltway lobbying with continued grassroots mobilization to convince mostly Republican pro-oil governors in the South (along with pro-oil drilling democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia) that it will cost them politically to continue on the track they’re on. The Obama administration has indicated it will not pursue leasing in federal waters off states that don’t want it, so obviously if governors can be turned against the drilling that would make it easier for Obama to withdraw the lease sales.


The Sea Party Coalition including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Blue Frontier and some 60 other groups believes that while it would be great if President Obama were to reverse his past mistake in opening up the Arctic and Atlantic to drilling, it’s at least as likely that decision will be made by the next president. They plan, through voter education and mobilization to make offshore oil drilling an issue during the 2016 elections that the presidential candidates will have to address. Then next summer, as Blue Frontier did in 2012, we will send a letter to the final two candidates from ocean leaders in conservation, recreation, science and business to find out where they stand on the future of our public seas including offshore drilling and publicize the results so that the public can know where they stand on protecting the blue in our red, white and blue.

In the 1980s when California defeated plans for new offshore drilling (see my book, ‘The Golden Shore’) the issue was coastal pollution versus energy. Today, as climate activist Bill McKibben pointed out at the Sea Party press conference, even if there is no oil spill from offshore operations and the oil is refined and burned in cars and power plants we create a carbon-dioxide spill into that atmosphere that will continue heating the ocean, raising sea levels and changing the basic chemistry of seawater in a way not good for complex life on our blue planet

For millions of people from Dewey Beach Delaware to Pawley’s Island South Carolina and Key West Florida questions of strategy or whether offshore drilling is an ocean issue or a climate issue are less important than that the threat of offshore oil go away, hopefully forever and that we begin to deal seriously with the rising seas and more powerful typhoons, droughts and extreme weather that are becoming a part of our daily lives because of our burning of fossil fuels (and forests).

The good news is there are some ideas so inherently stupid – be it processing and pumping tar sands for export like the Keystone scheme proposed or continuing high-risk at sea oil exploitation – that we can actually defeat them and offer something better (job generating clean energy and marine sanctuaries) if we all school together.

By David Helvarg



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