SELC op-ed: Offshore drilling, hurricanes are a dangerous mix for the Southeast

This satellite image shows Hurricane Florence, which dropped more than 35 inches of water in some locations, stalled over the Southeast earlier this fall. (© NOAA)
The following piece from Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker, highlighting the incredible risks of placing offshore drilling infrastructure in hurricane-prone waters, recently appeared in the Charleston Post & Courier. An excerpt of the article is below; you can read the full piece here.

As communities are rebuilding from Hurricane Florence and the damage compounded by Hurricane Michael, we’re reminded once again that extreme weather events have become all too common for our coast.

While Charleston missed the unprecedented levels of flooding and fallout experienced by other communities, this should be the time when we collectively focus on how to better prepare for and protect against hurricanes. And yet, the Trump administration continues its push to open our coast to offshore oil and gas drilling for the first time—which would add significant new risk every time a hurricane or major storm hits.

The threat from storms like Florence and Michael is greater than ever before. Last year’s hurricane season brought 17 named storms. Six of those were major hurricanes, and three of them brought devastating destruction to the United States, making last year the costliest hurricane season in history.

Even without a hurricane, offshore drilling is incompatible with the thriving economies that make the Southeast coast such an attractive place to live and work. ”

—Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker

That’s not a fluke. Only eight Category 5 hurricanes have ever made landfall in the United States. Two of those eight storms hit last year. This year, Florence set records for the most rainfall to ever hit the East Coast. As sea levels and temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, major hurricanes are becoming more common, lasting longer, and threatening a larger stretch of our coastline. Flooding is becoming more and more frequent, with hurricane-related floods reaching farther inland and storm surges becoming more severe.   

Even without a hurricane, offshore drilling is incompatible with the thriving economies that make the Southeast coast such an attractive place to live and work. Drilling threatens tourism, fishing, and even military readiness. When you add a dangerous storm to the mix, the economic and health costs of offshore drilling could be driven even higher.

That’s not just a theory. A new report by my organization shows that it’s a reality that has played out time and again in the Gulf of Mexico, with devastating consequences.

Just last year in Texas, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and surrounding Gulf Coast communities with deadly and destructive flooding. The center of the nation’s oil and gas industry, Houston was ground zero for pollution from infrastructure that was damaged in the storm, as two million pounds of dangerous pollutants leaked into the environment. The immediate and long-term health consequences of these spills bring ongoing risks for Texans. 

The lessons for the Southeast coast are clear, and they cut across partisan lines. Studies from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Department of Energy found that our nation’s energy infrastructure is dangerously vulnerable to severe weather resulting from climate change. Even the oil and gas industry recognizes that investing in new infrastructure in areas prone to hurricanes may not be a good idea.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition from East Coast communities is overwhelming, with more than 190 communities passing resolutions against offshore drilling and seismic testing. A single major spill would devastate fishing and tourism, jeopardizing billions in revenue and countless jobs, while bringing untold health risks for residents.  

Stories from the Gulf make it clear that the cost of offshore drilling is far too steep. The Trump administration has the opportunity to make sure these tragedies don’t repeat themselves on the Atlantic Coast, but has instead chosen to push forward with a dangerous plan opposed by the communities that will be affected when things go wrong.

The devastating aftermath of Florence and Michael is yet another reminder of just how quickly that can happen.

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