Sensitive Offshore Areas at Risk

The US Department of the Interior (DOI) has released a draft plan to expand offshore oil and gas leasing to encompass around 90% of US coastlines. This means that the coast off of New England could now be opened up to drilling.

The decision came when DOI released its Notice of Availability of the 2019-2024 Draft Proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which includes plans for two oil and gas lease sales in in the North Atlantic.

(Update: Mass Audubon attended the Boston public listening session on the expansion plan, and submitted comments to the Bureau of Energy Management voicing our opposition. The Massachusetts congressional delegation and Governor Baker have also written to DOI Secretary Zinke urging him to exclude the North Atlantic from the expansion. You can voice your opposition too.)

The exploration, development, and production of oil and gas off the Massachusetts Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) would have severe impacts on fisheries, wildlife habitat, and geological resources. Massachusetts and all of New England depend on a thriving coastal and ocean economy – which brings in $17.5 billion annually to the region – and that success in turn depends on healthy coastal and ocean ecosystems.

Endangered humpback whales are among the many species whose habitat could be impacted by an expansion in offshore drilling. Photo credit: Bill Thompson, USFWS

In response to this decision, Senator Ed Markey and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced the New England Coastal Protection Act, which would bar offshore drilling along the New England coast and protect our ocean resources. Senator Elizabeth Warren and all of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation have co-sponsored the bill.

Mass Audubon agrees that a permanent moratorium is needed on oil and gas exploration and production off Massachusetts. It would be a grave mistake to place our valuable natural resources at risk, especially when so much progress and economic growth is occurring through energy efficiency and development of clean, renewable energy.

This infographic gives a sense of the damage that offshore drilling could cause our region. To make matters worse, this graphic doesn’t account for currents or other variables. For instance, the combination of the Labrador Current coming down from the north and Gulf Stream coming from the south creates a clockwise gyre on George’s Bank. If there was a spill there, oil or gas would likely become entrapped in the gyre, repeating the damage to fish and other marine resources over and over. Photo credit: Center for American Progress

There are four areas in particular that we are especially concerned could be impacted:

Nearshore areas within 100 miles of the Massachusetts coast – the 1,500-mile coastline of the Bay State constitutes an environmentally sensitive and fragile marine environment that contributes substantially to the tourism and recreational economies of Massachusetts.

Georges Bank – this shallow, sediment-covered underwater plateau was once one of the world’s most productive fishing grounds for Atlantic cod, haddock, and flounder. Much of the Bank is currently closed to fishing in order to allow the area to recover from bottom-trawl fishing, and any disruption caused by drilling will severely disrupt long-term restoration efforts and jeopardize future sustainability.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary –  located between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, this area provides feeding and nursery grounds for more than a dozen cetacean species including the endangered humpback, northern right, and fin whales; supports foraging activity by diverse seabird species, including loons, shearwaters, alcids, and terns; Leatherback and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles (both endangered species) use the area for feeding, and seasonal fish and invertebrate populations include bluefin tuna, herring, cod, lobster, and scallops.

Atlantic cod in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo credit: Matthew Lawrence, NOAA

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument – 4,913 square miles of rich and diverse marine ecosystem, which includes three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon, and four underwater mountains (extinct volcanoes) known as “seamounts” that are biodiversity hotspots and home to many rare and endangered species.  These include thousand-year-old deep sea corals found nowhere else on Earth and other rare fish and invertebrates.

The proposed expansion would also be inconsistent with the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan, which Mass Audubon helped develop. In addition to the the actions of Governor Baker and the Massachusetts congressional delegation opposing the expansion, Attorney General Healey has also said she opposes opening up any new ocean areas to oil and gas leasing.

The final expansion plan is expected to be released by December 2018, which will be followed by its own 90-day public comment period. We’ll be standing alongside our state leaders and conservation partners to keep offshore drilling away from Massachusetts shores and beyond.