Several West Coast senators, including Washington Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, introduced legislation Thursday to permanently ban offshore drilling in all federal waters off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.
The bill was dropped in the Congressional hopper as a coalition of Northwest conservation and fishing groups said in a teleconference that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should be a call for action to halt ocean oil drilling and move faster to a clean-energy future.
“This kind of disaster is inevitable,” said Ross Macfarlane, a senior policy adviser for Climate Solutions, a Seattle-based clean-energy group. “We absolutely need to stop drilling off the West Coast and Alaska.”
Former President George W. Bush and Congress allowed a 20-year ban on oil drilling off the Washington coast to expire in 2008. Oil exploration off the state’s coast has been dormant since the 1960s.
The ocean off Washington is deep and plagued by wild weather, which increases the risk of drilling accidents, Cantwell said. In addition, the Washington coast is part of an active West Coast seismic zone where an earthquake could trigger a disastrous oil spill and hamper response efforts.
“I’ve always opposed drilling off the coast of Washington,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “The current tragedy in the Gulf Coast is a painful reminder that we can’t allow drilling anywhere on the West Coast.”
Up to 210,000 gallons per day of oil is spewing from an undersea well since a BP oil drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. The spill is threatening the environment and economy of the Gulf region with no surefire plan to stem the flow of oil.
Included in the conference call was Margaret Bryan Curole of Galliano, La., a board member for Commercial Fishermen of America. Her husband also pilots an oil service boat on the Gulf Coast.
“The jobs here are either in commercial fishing or the commercial oil industry,” she said. “People are sacred, angry and they don’t know what to do.”
If the nation is going to wean itself off oil, the Gulf Coast – home to 60 percent of the nation’s oil reserves – will need a massive jobs-retraining program, Curole said.
Alaskan marine toxicologist and commercial fisher Riki Ott said there are striking similarities between the Gulf oil spill and the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound 21 years ago.
“It starts with all the unkept promises of the oil companies to follow the environmental laws and the reliance on outdated oil-spill-response equipment,” she said from Louisiana. “We’re going to see holes in the ecosystem down here just like the herring collapse in Prince William Sound years after the Exxon Valdez spill.”
Fishermen in the Northwest can’t help but feel the pain of their counterparts in the Gulf Coast, who are watching the runaway oil spill destroy their lives, said Pete Knutson, a Seattle-based commercial fisherman in the North Pacific since 1972.
“We need to use this moment in the Gulf to raise hell with our politicians in Washington, D.C.,” Knutson said of the call to halt ocean oil drilling and switch to cleaner-energy sources.
Oil reserves off the West Coast would only meet the nation’s demand for oil for 500 days – less time than it can take to clean up a serious oil spill, the senators said.
“Ultimately, the overarching lesson from the mess in the Gulf is that we need to diversify our nation off of oil,” Cantwell said.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org