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April 23, 2020

With all eyes on COVID, Trump continues his environmental assaults


As COVID-19 continues its deadly march across the United States, the public and the media are rightly captivated by the pandemic and this administration’s inadequate response. Unfortunately when it comes to President Trump’s environmental assaults, he’s proven he can walk and chew gum at the same time. In the past months as the coronavirus has commanded national attention, Trump has relaxed EPA oversight of polluters, proposed excluding climate change from public infrastructure planning and proceeded to auction off public lands and waters to fossil fuel companies. 

We’ve spent our careers dealing with the aftereffects of fossil fuel disasters and working to protect our world’s ocean. And while we can’t leave anything on the field in the fight against the coronavirus, we also cannot abandon the fight against dangerous offshore drilling.

April 20 marked the 10-year anniversary of the worst human-caused environmental disaster in U.S. history: the deadly explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The disaster’s long-term economic, environmental and public health implications should be reminder enough that we can’t take our eyes off the activities of those who would give polluters and fossil fuel interests free rein to drill. An economy made vulnerable by the coronavirus simply cannot afford another disaster on the scale of Deepwater Horizon. Unfortunately, little has been done to protect people, ecosystems and wildlife from similar events in the future.

Deepwater Horizon exposed glaring shortfalls in our institutional safeguards, and yet despite the lessons made clear by the disaster and its aftermath, our leaders have been stubbornly blind to what should have been a teachable moment. Offshore oil and gas drilling remains as dirty and dangerous as it was 10 years ago — and President Trump’s campaign to radically expand offshore drilling still threatens nearly all our waters.

Oil from the BP spill washed ashore along more than 1,300 miles of coast across all five Gulf states, devastating marine life and ecosystems. The spill killed more than 150 whales and dolphins, and more than 1,000 washed up on shore over the following four years. Some estimates put the total bird mortality as high as 800,000. Oil killed up to 170,000 sea turtles — many of them endangered.

The Gulf economy reeled. Hotel owners described the phones going silent the days after the spill. Beach visits, boating and fishing plummeted, leading to a loss in the recreation industry of more than half a billion dollars. Fisheries closed, leaving some fishermen with no choice but to trade their trawl nets for booms and join the largely ineffective cleanup efforts. Government estimates put the total loss in the Gulf seafood industry at nearly a billion dollars.

More than 100,000 people were involved in the response, and in turn, were exposed to oil and the chemical dispersants that were required to address the manmade disaster. Cleanup workers reported respiratory problems, headaches, diarrhea, nausea and rashes. Some workers reported worsening health problems like blood disorders and heart problems even seven years after the disaster.

Now take a moment to imagine these tragedies taking place amid a global pandemic. Most experts say it’s only a matter of when, not if, another large-scale disaster will occur. Oil and gas companies are pushing their rigs farther out into the Gulf and into deeper waters, where risks of accidents are even higher, and where recovery and containment are even more difficult. President Trump and his allies remain focused on endangering our communities, economy and environment by expanding offshore drilling operations. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.

And beyond the immediate risks posed by offshore drilling to surrounding communities, this industry has brought us to our current global climate crisis. Hundred-year storms occurring multiple times a year, coastal flooding, massive wildfires and even plagues of locusts — all are linked to an unfolding climate catastrophe that comes from burning fossil fuels. All the signs point to the need for a rapid drawdown of fossil fuel production, and aggressive investment in clean renewable energy.

You’d think the Deepwater Horizon disaster would have been a wakeup call — the moment that we as a nation said “never again.” That should have been the moment we committed to the long-overdue phase out of our dependence on fossil fuels, while effectuating a focused investment plan for our clean energy future.

But we did not. And instead of working to prevent another spill, the oil and gas industry is working with President Trump to weaken the already inadequate rules put in place to prevent another tragedy. 

Instead of protecting the local people and economies that provide billions in GDP and hundreds of thousands of jobs to coastal states, President Trump is threatening those clean coastal economies with his plan to expand offshore drilling to nearly every shore. This flies in the face of overwhelming opposition that has grown to include more than 380 municipalities and over 2,200 local, state and federal elected officials. Now, all the governors along the East and West coasts — Republicans and Democrats alike — are on the record against drilling, too. 

It’s been 10 years since one of the worst preventable disasters this country has ever seen. We hope that this year we will finally learn from that awful lesson, reverse course and return to a path of progress — a path that leads to clean coasts, healthy oceans and a carbon-free future. The disaster we’re experiencing in real time should be a jarring wakeup call: It’s never too late to do the right thing, but the sooner we act, the more lives we’ll save.

By Antha Williams, who leads the Environment Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies; and Andrew Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana, the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation.