The Interior Department’s announcement on Thursday that it’s safe to do underwater seismic testing to look for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast is rekindling the fight over offshore oil drilling on the Eastern seaboard. This pretty much puts us back to where we were in March 2010, when President Obama decided to open up vast tracts of the Atlantic Ocean to oil drilling. Three weeks later, BP’s (BP) Deep Horizon oil rig exploded, effectively quashing the debate for the next few years.
Not surprisingly, the oil lobby thinks seismic testing is a great idea. The Atlantic is a “potential gold mine” of oil and gas reserves, according to a report issued in December by the American Petroleum Institute. Maybe. We have almost no idea what’s down there. The most recent estimates are more than 30 years old. What data there is suggests the Atlantic seabed stretching from Delaware to Cape Canaveral may hold only about 3.3 billion barrels of oil. That’s about as much crude as the U.S. consumes in six months.
Conservationists hate the idea of drilling for oil on the East Coast, let alone the seismic testing that has to precede it. Boats must tow an array of air guns that bounce sound waves off the ocean floor to see what’s underneath it. While that may seem benign, marine biologists warn that it will turn the Atlantic Coast into an underwater “blast zone” that will injure thousands of whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals that use sonar to migrate, communicate, and hunt for food.
The timing of the decision is certainly interesting. It comes as the debate as to whether the U.S. should export its new-found oil bonanza is starting to heat up. Then there’s the long-simmering dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline. While it’s a tad cynical to cast this as part of some grand political calculation by the administration—moving forward on East Coast offshore oil drilling as a trade-off for dithering over Keystone—it’s hard to talk about one without the other.
Despite overseeing the biggest increase in oil production in U.S. history during the past five years, President Obama is still viewed as anti-drilling in a lot of conservative circles—basically because the oil lobby keeps saying so. But painting this administration as anti-oil is getting harder. The decision to move forward on offshore drilling in the Atlantic, coupled with the president’s reluctance to—at least so far—scrap the Keystone project, are making him far more enemies on the left than on the right.