Obama's offshore-drilling mistake

President Obama's efforts at the Paris climate talks helped to achieve a strong global agreement that will set the world on a united path to combat climate change. But his deeds in Paris stand in contrast to a looming offshore drilling decision by his administration that could jeopardize his strong environmental legacy and the leadership position of the United States at this critical juncture.

When the administration announced its rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline ahead of the Paris climate talks, the decision was highlighted as a major step forward from the United States on reducing our reliance on energy sources that emit greenhouse gas emissions. But earlier this year, the administration announced a plan to open the Atlantic from Virginia to Georgia to offshore oil and gas drilling, a decision that is a major shift in federal policy and entirely inconsistent with other efforts to reduce carbon emissions and slow the march of climate change.

oil and gas platform
Currahesshutter | Getty Images

Opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling would represent a doubling down on our reliance on fossil fuels and commit our coast to risky offshore drilling for years to come. It would also continue our dependence on harmful, heat-trapping gas being released into our atmosphere rather than investing in cleaner energy choices.

But the proposal also doesn't make sense from an economic perspective. The oil and gas industry promises wildly exaggerated numbers of new jobs from Atlantic drilling – estimates that are based on sky-high oil prices, higher-than-estimated oil amounts, and politically impossible revenue sharing. These promises don't reflect today's reality with oil barrels at decade low prices and the Gulf of Mexico seeing oil jobs decline with Louisiana losing about 17 percent of jobs in the sector in the last year as the market shifts elsewhere.

With no good reason to move forward with drilling and every reason to stop it, the communities this decision will affect have made their opposition to offshore drilling clear, with 90 towns and cities along the East Coast passing resolutions to oppose oil exploration and development. Major Southern coastal cities like Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Savannah and Wilmington oppose this plan that not only would contribute to heat-trapping gas emissions but would threaten local communities and economies.

Beyond the long-term climate affects that spread well beyond the borders of states and towns in the Southeast, drilling would have a devastating impact on the lifeblood of communities and the backbone of local economies: the South Atlantic's pristine beaches, natural wetlands, and ample wildlife.

Our states have invested millions in establishing a thriving coastal tourism industry that attracts visitors from around the world — an identity that is incompatible with the risk and industrialization of offshore drilling. This is why chambers of commerce, restaurant associations, fishery associations, and hotel and lodging associations in coastal communities have come out strongly against the administration's plan.

According to government estimates, ocean-dependent tourism from Delaware to central Florida contributes over $10 billion annually to coastal communities. Government estimates also show that recreational fishing in this region generates nearly $3.3 billion in these areas. These established, thriving coastal industries would be put at risk by drilling, both through the threat of a catastrophic spill like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, and through the impacts of routine drilling operations.

Despite what's at stake, calls from local communities, elected officials, and businesses have thus far gone unanswered in Washington.

Now is the time for the Obama administration to cement its legacy by ending consideration of offshore drilling in the South Atlantic. Jeopardizing this pristine coast would be a major step backward following the agreement reached in Paris to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions.

Commentary by Sierra Weaver a senior attorney in the Chapel Hill Office of the Southern Environmental Law Center. She is also a leader of SELC's Coast and Wetlands Program.