Corry Westbrook is Oceana's federal policy director
On January 2, 2013, our country will be poised to go over the fiscal cliff if leaders in Washington, D.C. are unable to agree on ways to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion. Why is this relevant to ocean conservation?
Our 95,000 miles of coastline, bordered by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, sustain 1.8 million marine tourism jobs and contribute $120 billion annually to the nation’s GDP. If the budget sequester, or “fiscal cliff,” occurs, that revenue will be severely jeopardized.
If Congress is unable to agree on a solution, the sequester’s 8.2% across-the-board cuts will hit federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Interior (DOI), and will have disastrous effects on the government’s ability to restore our fisheries, protect marine wildlife and address environmental emergencies. After already enduring years of funding cuts, the sequester could be devastating to our oceans and the communities they support.
Some of the key programs that will be impacted include NOAA’s response to environmental emergencies like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. During the Deepwater oil spill, the agency mobilized 7 ships for data collection, flew 773 flight hours collecting air samples and conducting surveys, and surveyed 4,229 miles of shoreline. NOAA, as one of the first responders to the crisis, delivered daily assessments that enabled policy-makers to react. Without adequate funds for NOAA to monitor these incidents, the consequences of another disaster like the Deepwater Horizon blowout could be irreparable.
If funding is cut to the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which regulates offshore oil and gas drilling, it could have dramatic impacts on the oceans. BSEE oversees industry drilling efforts, assesses oil spill response plans for veracity and completeness, and is generally tasked with making offshore oil and gas drilling as safe as possible.
BSEE is already under-funded, under-staffed and ill-equipped to prevent or deal with another Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Oversight and inspection levels are paltry relative to the scale of our drilling operations. While DOI and BSEE have attempted to strengthen inspection and oversight capabilities, funding levels currently remain far below what would be needed to make drilling safer and the situation will worsen should the across-the-board budget cuts take place.
In fact, the U.S. is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to inspectors available and trained to inspect the oil and gas rigs off our coasts. The U.S. Coast Guard has released the following information regarding inspector-to-rig ratio in various countries around the world:
We are already playing Russian roulette with our offshore drilling operations. Cutting BSEE’s funding even more would only increase the likelihood of oil spills. We must prevent these drastic budget cuts to ensure the health and safety of our oceans and coasts.