Getting the off-shore shaft

Doesn't the East Coast deserve the same protections from oil spills given the West Coast?

Just days ago, the Obama administration wisely chose to protect the most pristine and sensitive tundra in Alaska from oil exploration. It has similarly maintained a ban on drilling off the West Coast. And that pipeline from Canada to Texas? The Keystone XL is a no-go, says President Barack Obama, who has threatened to veto any Congressional effort that says otherwise.

But as for Maryland, home to the nation's largest estuary and thus a state that has much to lose and nothing to gain from off-shore drilling (not to mention one that has strongly supported the president in his election and re-election)? Apparently the Obama administration sees nothing wrong with allowing oil and gas drilling not far from our shores for the first time in 30 years.

That's outrageous, and kudos to Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin for making that point this week. The decision won't lead to drilling immediately off the coast of Ocean City, but since it opens up that prospect immediately next door in Virginia — and all the way down to Georgia — the impact may be felt here, nonetheless. As Senator Mikulski observed at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, "when oil starts to leak, it knows no boundaries."

Has the administration forgotten about what happened in the Gulf of Mexico just five years ago? The Deepwater Horizon spill was a disaster that cost billions and brought the local tourism industry to its knees. BP has spent a king's ransom cleaning the mess up and compensating local residents and business owners. Yet there are still concerns about the lasting impact not only on the ecosystem but on human health.

When the possibility of Atlantic off-shore drilling was last broached in 2010, we thought it had been safely put to rest by events in the Gulf. Certainly, it turned the tide of similar efforts to permit off-shore drilling on the West Coast. Are East Coast beaches less valuable? Our seafood industry less important? Human health here less consequential? Sorry, but the promise that oil rigs will be at least 50 miles off the coast gives little comfort. (The Deepwater Horizon was 41 miles off Louisiana, and the effects of its spill were felt as far away as Florida.)

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the decision was part of a choice to exploit the country's gas and oil reserves while protecting "areas that are simply too special to develop." To that we can only say, thanks a lot. The administration used to use that kind of "too special" language to talk about protecting the Chesapeake Bay, which, in case Secretary Jewell is unaware, is rather closely connected to the Atlantic.

And that's not just about saltwater flowing into the bay, it's about anadromous fish like striped bass breeding in the Chesapeake before swimming off into the ocean or about the tiny spawn of blue crab being swept off into the Atlantic before getting swept back in the bay by tide and currents, a critical point in the crab life cycle. The bottom line is what happens off the coast of Virginia can have a dramatic impact on this state and its coastal resources.

Shame on Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for not standing up for the best interests of his own state and instead capitulating to those who only see the money to be made in off-shore leases and not the huge risks involved. An oil slick off the coast of Virginia Beach would be just as devastating as one created near Ocean City.

But the greater shame is on the White House, which appears to have weighed the risks and rewards with a political thumb on the scales. How else to explain a decision to give Southern states what they wanted while protecting the West? Maryland may just be collateral damage.

It's disappointing that Gov. Larry Hogan has nothing to say on this topic since his own fledgling record on environmental issues is coming up short so far. But he at least isn't the decision maker on this one. Mr. Obama, who speaks frequently about climate change, rising sea levels and the need to move U.S. away from oil dependency and toward renewable resources has knowingly endorsed a counter-productive policy and likely because it helps shield Democrats against criticism on recent decisions regarding Keystone and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Now Maryland's best hope is that any environmental review will at least recommend against leasing in areas nearest Assateague Island or the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

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