Oil spill law makes us more oil dependent

Buzzards Bay Windmills:
Law aimed at spills makes us more oil-dependent
Providence Journal, Monday, September 25, 2006

DEVELOPER Jay Cashman's plans to build three offshore wind farms in Buzzards Bay were thrown for a loop last month when he was warned by Governor Romney's administration that his proposal could not be built, under a Massachusetts law designating Buzzards Bay an ocean sanctuary.

Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Tom Reilly invokes the same law in opposing the wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, even though the Cape Wind site falls squarely within federal jurisdiction.

Not surprisingly, neither Romney nor Reilly appears eager to explain the circumstances leading to the sanctuary law. A look back at its origins reveals the basis for their hesitancy.

The Massachusetts legislature approved the designation in 1970, shortly after two environmental catastrophes, one in California, the other in Buzzards Bay.

In 1969 a blowout on an oil rig six miles off Santa Barbara spewed 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean -- killing thousands of fish, birds, sea lions, and other forms of marine life, and befouling beaches for miles. The volume of oil spilled was more than 30 times greater than that of the Bouchard barge accident in Buzzards Bay of 2003.

Though many cite publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962, as marking the birth of the environmental movement, others point to the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill. And the government wasted little time in responding. Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act, signed into law that year by President Nixon. The law led to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970.

California banned offshore oil rigs (a ban lasting 16 years, until after California Gov. Ronald Reagan had been elected president), established a state coastal commission, and started the nation's first environmental-studies program, at the University of California at -- fittingly -- Santa Barbara.

Also in 1969 was a similar disaster in Buzzards Bay, albeit smaller in scale. A Bouchard barge ran aground off West Falmouth, disgorging 168,000 gallons of oil. Nearly 40 years later, it remains the worst oil spill in Buzzards Bay.

As had occurred in Washington and California after the Santa Barbara accident, the Bay State legislature acted promptly. It passed the Massachusetts Ocean Sanctuaries Act, according protection to Buzzards Bay, Nantucket Sound, and Cape Cod Bay beyond the state's three-mile offshore jurisdiction.

The law led to a years-long dispute with the federal government over whether all of Nantucket Sound would fall within state jurisdiction; the dispute was resolved by the 1980s in favor of federal control for areas of the sound beyond the state's three-mile limit. But for Buzzards and Cape Cod bays, the state designation remained over the entirety of both bodies of water.

In 1977, further impetus for state control over all of Nantucket Sound came about when the U.S. Interior Department proposed opening large tracts of offshore waters in the Northeast to oil drilling, including the rich fishing grounds of Georges Bank.

Once again, the timing proved fortuitous. Less than a year before the proposal was made, New England had suffered its worst oil spill when in 1976 the tanker Argo Merchant broke apart on Nantucket Shoals, releasing 7.7 million gallons of home-heating oil.

It was one of several accidents in coastal waters involving ships and barges hauling oil during an unusually bitter winter. A month after the Argo Merchant ran aground, a Bouchard barge was spilling oil in an ice-choked Buzzards Bay. Desperate to contain the spill, the Coast Guard ignited the slick from helicopters and burned off a small portion of the oil. I still recall seeing the plume of black smoke from my mother's house, in Buzzards Bay, more than 10 miles away.

It took several years of effort by the Conservation Law Foundation and other environmental advocates to protect offshore waters from oil drilling. In the wake of the endless series of oil spills, another incentive had been created to accord state protection to all of Nantucket Sound -- to prevent oil pipelines connected to rigs on Georges Bank from passing through the seabed of the sound en route to the mainland.

In the early 1980s, however, Georges Bank was ruled off-limits to oil and gas drilling, a prohibition in effect to this day (upheld in May by a vote in the U.S. House). The ban had the effect of undermining the state's request for federal marine-sanctuary status for Nantucket Sound, since oil pipelines would not pass through the sound in the absence of offshore drilling.

Looking back to the creation of the state ocean-sanctuary law, it could hardly be more obvious that the legislation was enacted in response to a specific threat -- accidents involving vessels transporting oil and offshore oil rigs.

It is not without irony that the Romney administration and Attorney General Reilly are invoking this law to justify thwarting offshore wind farms in coastal waters -- projects that would make us less dependent on oil.

Jack Coleman, a former Cape Cod Times political reporter, writes a blog in support of the Cape Wind project: www.windfarmersalmanac.com.

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