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.
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.
The last thing we should be considering is adding more risk by pursuing offshore drilling, which coastal communities have already made clear they don’t want. But the Trump administration is weighing whether to move forward with its plan to bring offshore drilling to the Atlantic Coast, a region that has rejected the idea time and time again, and is expected to release its updated proposed leasing plan in the coming months.
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.
When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana in 2005, they destroyed 115 offshore drilling platforms and damaged a total of 558 pipelines – spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. That’s more than when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Onshore, processing and storage facilities released other dangerous chemicals into the surrounding communities.
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 2 million pounds of dangerous pollutants leaked into the environment. The immediate and long-term health consequences of these spills bring ongoing risks for Texans.
While Hurricane Michael appears to have mostly avoided areas where oil and gas infrastructure is situated, events like the Taylor Energy spill — on track to become the worst spill in U.S. history from steadily leaking oil into the Gulf since Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 — are a stark reminder of what’s at stake when it comes to the dangerous mix of hurricanes and drilling infrastructure.
The lessons for the Southeast coast are clear, and they cut across partisan lines. Studies from the U.S. Government Accountability Office and the 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.
Catherine Wannamaker is a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston Office.