Rahall: Expired OCS moratoriums probably can't be reimposed

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 16 -- US Outer Continental Shelf moratoriums that expired last September probably can't be reimposed, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall (D-W.Va.) said on Feb. 10.

"I can understand your desire to see the moratoriums reinstated. However, the ship may have already sailed and the political reality may be that they can't be reimposed," he told the first two witnesses testifying at the first of the committee's three scheduled hearings on OCS oil and gas leasing policies. Two more will be held on Feb. 24 and 25.

But movie and television actor Ted Danson, representing the Oceana environmental organization, and Philippe Cousteau, chief executive of Earth Eco International and grandson of undersea explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, said that bans on oil and gas activity are still needed.

"My hope would be you would sail the ship back into port. We're flirting with disaster by drilling offshore. Our fisheries around the world are an $80 billion/year landed industry. One-third of them have totally collapsed. By adding acidification to the ocean, you make it impossible for creatures there to survive. The added insults could have an impact on our lifetimes and our children's lifetimes," Danson said.

"Reinstating the moratorium is critical to the health of the ocean. But if there must be new drilling, its impacts must be minimized. It's absolutely critical that studies be conducted before any leasing occurs. Contrary to popular belief, all oceans aren't the same. The current process does not recognize this," said Cousteau, who testified on behalf of the Ocean Conservancy.

He and Danson also said that Arctic oil and gas leasing should be stopped because of its ice floe impacts, and a comprehensive strategy should be developed to manage and protect ocean resources. Cousteau also suggested that an ocean investment fund should be created to use offshore revenue for more ocean research and development.

'You will have spills'
Several committee members were sympathetic. "You start putting these oil rigs off the coast of New Jersey, people aren't going to come even if there aren't spills. And you will have spills. This notion that no rigs caused spills and there was no damage from Katrina and Rita is contrary to what I understand," said Frank Pallone (D-NJ).

Others were critical. "I think your efforts are misplaced. You have not talked about an orderly process to get us off fossil fuels. We're going to have to continue, for the near-term I believe, the extraction of oil and gas not just off our coasts but around the world," said Jim Costa (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee's Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee.

But Cousteau and Danson both said that continued reliance on offshore oil has impacts beyond production platforms. "I don't think you can just look at the drilling of oil. You have to talk about burning it. On every level, we create more jobs with green energy. To imply we're losing jobs by not drilling offshore seems ingenuous," Danson said.

"I believe we need to embrace an alternative energy approach that is worthy of this country's potential. Any new drilling on the OCS is not going to reduce drilling elsewhere or meaningfully reduce the number of tankers bringing oil to our country," Cousteau maintained.

He said that he considered siting important in considering any offshore energy production. "It has to be appropriate. The thing about wind that's different than oil is that wind doesn't produce a caustic substance," he said.

"It's clear that we need order in the ocean just as surely as we need it on land. We need comprehensive ocean planning, with conservation as a central deciding factor, so that the many competing uses work together in a way that is sustainable for our shared ocean future," Cousteau said.

Revenue and jobs
Committee members from producing states cited the offshore oil and gas industry's economic contributions. "In Louisiana, we have 21,000 producing company jobs related to oil and gas just on the OCS with an average annual salary around $60,000 per employee," said John Fleming (R-La.).

"Oil and gas is the second-largest contributor of income for our federal government, after income taxes. Most of the folks in the oil and gas industry want to protect the environment. I support responsible energy development because I think it's a big part of our economy," said Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

"The problem is we have hundreds of groups and government agencies that throw up roadblocks any time anyone wants to drill an oil and gas well. That destroys jobs, which hurts the poor people of this country. You're putting the final nail in the coffin of many rural areas because their citizens have to drive great distances to jobs and they can't afford to pay higher prices. We can't base the entire economy of our country on tourism, particular in a tough economic time," said John R. Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.)

But other committee members were skeptical that offshore oil and gas resources can be produced with minimal environmental impacts. "We definitely have heard a lot from the industry about how things have changed and technology is better. Just this past December, a small hole the size of a quarter developed in a pipe that sends oil from the very same platform which spilled oil off Santa Barbara and sent thousands of gallons of oil into the water. It's not just the platforms. It's the pipelines, the barges and the other infrastructure that are also at risk," said Lois Capps (D-Calif.)

Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) went further. "Despite the improvements in oil drilling technologies, 100% of the oil that's produced spills because the carbon in that oil comes back down as carbon dioxide. We need to talk about the inevitability of this kind of oil spill from every onshore and offshore well if we continue on this course. I think we should consider an international moratorium on drilling for oil in those parts of the planet which have been destroyed by oil use," he said.

A second panel of witnesses included Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in North Carolina; D.T. Minich, president of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau in Florida; Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations; Bruce Allen, co-founder of Stop Oil Seeps California, and Jefferson Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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