Interior Launches Comprehensive Review of Federal Oil and Gas Program

Is this the start of a more just, equitable and sustainable energy future for our ocean?

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez ran aground, spilling roughly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. On April 20, 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, taking the lives of 11 oil rig workers and spilling an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. These catastrophes are infamous for the damage they caused to our ocean and coasts. But even routine oil and gas operations cause harm; the production and combustion of oil and gas cause air, water and noise pollution that impact ocean resources and drive the climate crisis and ocean acidification.

It’s time for a change. That’s why I was so pleased to see that the Department of the Interior announced the launch of a comprehensive review of the federal oil and gas program, including a review of offshore oil and gas activities. By early summer, the Interior Department plans to release a report that will outline recommendations on how “to improve stewardship of our public lands and waters” and transition to a “just and equitable energy future.”

The Department of the Interior implements laws, regulations and policies that determine whether and under what conditions companies can extract fossil fuels from public lands and waters, including areas of the ocean open for offshore drilling. Existing policies allow the government to authorize oil and gas companies to extract fossil fuels from our ocean without properly accounting for social and environmental costs, including climate change impacts.

The new review process gives members of the public—that’s you!—a chance to urge the Interior Department to be better stewards of our ocean.

How did this come about? It started with Executive Order 14008, signed by President Biden on January 27, 2021. The Executive Order recognized what scientists have been telling us for a long time: “We face a climate crisis that threatens our people and communities, public health and the economy and, starkly, our ability to live on planet Earth.” President Biden’s Order directed federal agencies to take a broad range of actions to address the climate crisis. Among them, he tasked the Secretary of the Interior with reviewing and reconsidering federal oil and gas practices—both on- and offshore—with an eye toward stewardship and climate change impacts.

While the Department of the Interior has not yet unveiled all the details, the comprehensive review process will kick off with a “virtual forum” in which a variety of invited stakeholders will share their perspectives. The review process will also include outreach to Congress, Governors, Tribes, and other state and local elected leaders. Not least, members of the public will also be able to submit written comments. The Department will use all this input to create an interim report that will summarize initial findings and recommend actions that can “improve stewardship of public lands and waters, create jobs and build a just and equitable energy future.”

I’m optimistic that the Interior Department’s comprehensive review will lead to serious and substantial changes to the agency’s approach to offshore oil and gas activities. We’ll push the Department to:

  • Recognize that offshore oil and gas operations create overlapping and synergistic threats to the ocean. Spills and other pollution directly threaten important ecosystems and resources, and the deepening plastics crisis is directly linked to the development of oil and gas resources. Emissions from the production and combustion of oil and gas are driving the climate crisis and ocean acidification.
  • Promote a rapid, just and equitable transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. Among other things, such a transition would provide assistance to displaced fossil fuel workers, address the impacts and inequities to frontline communities caused or exacerbated by coastal refineries and other oil and gas activities and facilities, ensure affordable energy for low-income communities and ensure sustainable economic opportunities for communities that are currently dependent on extraction.
  • Ensure stringent safety and environmental standards, including the protection of important marine areas and proven spill response capacity. The Interior Department must fundamentally change regulations governing offshore oil and gas activities to better account for the environmental and social costs of offshore drilling, remove perverse economic incentives that often favor extraction, and ensure rigorous monitoring and enforcement, particularly in frontline communities.

The climate crisis poses an existential threat to our planet. Business-as-usual is no longer an option, and we must transition—rapidly and responsibly—from fossil fuel production to renewable energy sources. I hope the Department of the Interior’s comprehensive review process will mark the start of a new energy future for our ocean and our planet.

Take action by telling the Department of the Interior that we must transition—rapidly and responsibly—from fossil fuel production to renewable energy sources.

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