Defenders in Action: Defenders Responds to Offshore Oil Disaster
The British Petroleum (BP) offshore drilling rig that exploded on April 20 dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the following weeks. For sea turtles, fish, shorebirds, seabirds, corals, dolphins, whales and other wildlife that live part or all of their lives in the Gulf of Mexico, the unprecedented oil leak is catastrophic.
© Krista Schlyer / Defenders of Wildlife
In both size and impacts, the BP spill is one of the nation’s worst environmental disasters, far surpassing the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. It threatens at least 400 species, 19 vital wildlife refuges, two national marine sanctuaries and dozens of communities dependent on the gulf’s multibillion-dollar fishing and tourism industries. The fact that the spill occurred just weeks after President Obama proposed expanding drilling off America’s coasts dramatically raised the stakes for wildlife.
“In recent years, we’ve been lulled into believing something like this could never happen,” says Defenders’ President Rodger Schlickeisen. “Big Oil companies said, ‘Look at our great safety record and even if something does happen, we have the means to control it.’ We’re seeing that isn’t remotely true.”
After revelations that the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) granted BP’s Gulf oil drilling operation a waiver from a full environmental analysis required by federal law, Defenders filed suit against the federal agency. MMS also exempted more than 20 new structures and exploratory wells from environmental review.
“This is unconscionable,” says Defenders’ attorney Sierra Weaver. “As demonstrated by the disaster in the Gulf, the magnitude of potential damage posed by risky offshore drilling operations is just too great to require anything less than close scrutiny by a competent and discerning agency.”
In the days following the spill, Richard Charter, Defenders’ senior policy advisor for marine programs, began working with the nation’s top data analysts to predict the spill’s path to help wildlife rescue response teams plan their work. And a team of Defenders staffers led by executive vice president Jamie Rappaport Clark traveled to the Gulf Coast, toured wildlife refuges and met with government officials to assess the potential environmental damage and coordinate Defenders’ response.
“The worst thing about this is that it all could have been avoided,” says Clark. “This is not a natural phenomenon caused by Mother Nature. This is caused by people. Something has got to change.”
“Clearly this raises grave concerns for any expansion of drilling off our coasts in the future,” says Charter.
Defenders was pleased when President Obama, in response to calls by Defenders and others, canceled exploratory oil drilling in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which had been scheduled to begin in July; suspended deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; and canceled the sale of oil leases off the Virginia coast. Defenders has called upon President Obama and Congress to make these steps permanent.
Defenders has also been aggressively lobbying the U.S. Senate to pass comprehensive climate change legislation that moves the country away from its dangerous dependence on fossil fuels and addresses the impacts of climate change on wildlife.
“To win climate change legislation we should not have to compromise by allowing offshore drilling,” says Schlickeisen. “This spill is a reminder about how important it is to have strong environmental laws. We plan to put the pressure on Congress and the White House to move away from our reliance on dirty, dangerous fossil fuels once and for all.”