Environmental leaders roiled by oil plan
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Environmental leaders roiled by oil plan

President Obama’s announcement last week that he intends to allow drilling for oil off the Atlantic Coast drew swift condemnation from area political, environmental, and Jewish communal leaders.

Oil is “like coal, it’s not good from square one,” said Rabbi Lawrence Troster, a Teaneck resident who has worked with a number of Jewish environmental organizations. “They can’t guarantee there aren’t going to be oil spills and other things that won’t devastate the shore.”

Obama’s energy strategy called for the exploration off the Atlantic coastline from the coast of Florida up to Delaware. Obama also announced a series of car and truck fuel and emissions standards, and the purchase of 100 plug-in electric cars for federal agencies.

Troster called the oil exploration announcement “a calculated move,” a concession, to create leverage for Obama to tackle larger issues such as climate change.

The president “has some Democrats who are not on board on some of the climate change issues; this is a way of balancing some of the interests,” Troster said. “On environmental issues this particular administration is doing a much better job than the previous administration.”

He noted that it would be several years before offshore drilling became operational and even if the U.S. were to drill all of its domestic oil resources, it still would not be enough.

U.S. energy independence, he said, would not come from domestic oil drilling, but rather from pursuing sustainable alternative sources such as wind and solar energy.

“It’s really important in the 21st century and today’s economy to focus on modern techniques,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

COEJL condemned Obama’s drilling announcement but praised other parts of the president’s strategy, such as improving fuel efficiency standards and regulating automobile greenhouse gas emissions.

“This administration is looking to take a comprehensive approach and we hope it will accomplish that,” Sanchez told the Standard. “We’re concerned when we see offshore exploration for oil drilling. We want to see more of a focus on clean technology.”

Reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security, Sanchez continued, but reducing fossil fuel dependence in general is also a national concern.

Obama emphasized in his speech that the emissions caps and domestic exploration are “part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies on homegrown fuels and clean energy.”

The Gulf of Mexico contains 36 billion to 41.5 billion barrels of undiscovered, recoverable oil and 161 trillion to 207 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, recoverable natural gas, according to the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service.

The Interior Department intends to hold two lease sales – one 50 miles off the coast of Virginia and the other in Alaska – by 2012. It is the Virginia plan that has drawn the ire of New Jersey’s politicians from within the president’s own Democratic party and the Republican party, despite its past support for domestic oil exploration.

“Even though the president’s draft plan does not propose drilling off the Jersey shore, it does allow oil and gas exploration just south of Cape May. That concerns me a great deal,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9) in a statement to the Standard. “Furthermore, any oil spills resulting from drilling operations further south could easily follow northerly currents and end up washing onto our beaches.”

The United States cannot drill its way out of its foreign oil dependence, Rothman said. The country needs to focus on the development of new, alternative energy and on conservation.

“Drilling off the Virginia coast would endanger many of New Jersey’s beaches and vibrant coastal economies,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in a statement sent to this paper. “Giving Big Oil more access to our nation’s waters is really a Kill, Baby, Kill policy: it threatens to kill jobs, kill marine life, and kill coastal economies that generate billions of dollars. Offshore drilling isn’t the solution to our energy problems.”

The Garden State’s new Republican governor, Chris Christie, also condemned the plan.

“I oppose the idea of drilling off the coast of New Jersey,” Christie said in a statement. “New Jersey’s coastline is one of our economic engines and I would have to be really convinced of both the economic viability and environmental safety of oil and gas exploration off our coast. At this point, I’m not convinced of either.”

According to Christie, Obama’s proposal so far includes areas off Virginia and the northern tip of Delaware near Cape May in the Delaware Bay. Though New Jersey’s coast is not included in the plan, an oil spill could have serious ramifications for the Jersey shore.

“That’s a reasonable fear,” Troster said. “When I hear there’s going to be more environmentally sensitive oil drilling, [I consider it] an oxymoron. It’s a very dirty form of energy production and I don’t think you can change that in any significant way.”

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