Page last updated at 16:46 GMT, Tuesday, 18 May 2010 17:46 UK

How US and Europe differ on offshore drilling

By Katie Connolly
BBC News, Washington

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has prompted calls for the US to re-impose a moratorium on offshore oil drilling, which lapsed in 2008 after nearly 30 years. No other country in the world has taken such a tough line on exploitation of offshore oil, so why is the US different?

Deepwater Horizon blaze
The Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank in April

Opposition to offshore drilling is entwined with the birth of modern American environmentalism.

In 1969, an oil well six miles (9.7km) off the coast of Santa Barbara, a famed beachside town in California, ruptured.

That well was successfully capped, but the resulting pressure caused five other ruptures along a fault line on the ocean floor. For 11 days, oil spewed out causing an 800 sq mile (2,072 sq km) slick.

An estimated 200,000 gallons of oil gurgled out of the breaks, much of it washing up along a 35-mile stretch of picturesque coastline. Devastating pictures of wildlife destruction helped galvanize public sentiment against offshore drilling.

At that time, America's environmental consciousness had been slowly awakening, spurred by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's seminal work Silent Spring, an influential text on the impact of pesticides.

Five months after the Santa Barbara spill, the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught on fire.

Boats battle the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969
Americans were horrified when Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969

The memories of the Santa Barbara spill, combined with the images of the blazing river, are considered by environment groups to be a turning point in American environmental history.

"You could look at that oil spill and the Cuyahoga River fire as the seedlings for the environmental movement in the United States," says Hasan Nazar, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, an American environmental advocacy group.

The following year, Earth Day was established, and over the next few years, Congress passed several pieces of landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things established the Council on Environmental Quality.

Prior to the Santa Barbara spill, environmentalists had directed much of their energy towards conserving national parks and wildlife. Santa Barbara changed that and, with it, the face of American environmentalism.

In 1981, amid growing environmental concerns, Congress declared a moratorium on offshore drilling on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The growth of environmentalism in Europe mirrored its development in the US, but Europeans have never mounted a significant campaign against all offshore drilling.

The Torrey Canyon disaster off the coast of Cornwall in 1967 raised British awareness of the environmental hazards of oil spills.

An estimated 15,000 seabirds were killed by the slick, which extended along some 120 miles of Cornish coast. But being from a tanker, not an oil rig, the spill did not spur a widespread backlash against offshore drilling.

Proximity and timing

Keith Clarke, a geography professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara, says the proximity of oil rigs to the shoreline helps drive opposition in the US.

Environmentalists are concerned for Louisiana's fragile ecosystem
Environmentalists are concerned for Louisiana's fragile ecosystem

"Drilling in the UK is extremely remote and none of it is clearly visible from the coastline in the way it is in California and Louisiana," Mr Clarke says.

"In the US, drilling is integrated with local economies so much - and the consequences of disasters are so immediate and apparent - that communities pay more attention than in other parts of the world."

Timing is another significant difference between European and American attitudes.

"The big developments in the North Sea took place 30 to 40 years ago," says Charlie Kronick, senior climate adviser for the environment group Greenpeace UK. He notes that environmental sensitivities were not as acute then.

Europeans also face different supply issues. America has significant onshore oil resources while Europe only has offshore wells.

"Campaigning against offshore drilling in Western Europe would be banning it altogether, so it would seem a bit more drastic," said Marius Holm, deputy director of Norwegian environmental pressure group Bellona.

Ronald Reagan's Christmas trees

In recent years, however, America's aversion to offshore drilling has waned.

It's a sad thing from our perspective that it takes a disaster to refocus people's attention on drilling
Athan Manuel
The Sierra Club

With oil prices soaring in 2008, US gas prices hit a historic high of $4 per gallon.

Around the same time, President George W Bush lifted a ban on new offshore drilling leases put in place by his father, President George HW Bush, in 1990.

The younger President Bush's move was largely symbolic though, as that ban was simply an additional level of protection which had complemented the moratorium enacted by Congress in 1981.

But it did pave the way for the memorable "drill, baby, drill" chant at the 2008 Republican National Convention - a sentiment still powerfully backed by swathes of American conservatives.

Amid mounting political pressure, Congress let its moratorium on offshore drilling lapse in 2008.

Now, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico has given environmentalists hope that offshore drilling may again become politically unpalatable.

"It's a sad thing from our perspective that it takes a disaster to refocus people's attention on drilling," says Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club, America's oldest environmental organisation.

"This spill has taken drilling off the table politically as a simple solution to the complex problem of energy policy.

"Hopefully it will change the dynamic with the public."

But in Santa Barbara, lights from the oil rigs still dot the night sky, a legacy in part attributed to Ronald Reagan's time as governor of California. With tongues firmly in cheek, locals call them Ronald Reagan's Christmas Trees.

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