Congressional OCS leasing opponents, advocates take steps

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Mar. 26 -- Nine of their US Senate colleagues asked John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Lindsay O. Graham (R-SC) to not include expanded offshore oil and gas activity in the energy and environment compromise they are trying to formulate. Eight US House members from Virginia, meanwhile, introduced a bipartisan bill which would require the US Minerals Management Service to proceed with a scheduled lease sale off the state’s coast.

The moves made Mar. 25 from both sides of the US Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas resource question came amid growing indications that US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar might soon provide more specific indications of the direction the next 5-year OCS program will take. Steps to begin preparing its programmatic environmental impact statement are being taken, MMS Director S. Elizabeth Birnbaum told a House subcommittee the same day.

The letter from Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and 8 other Senate Democrats from coastal states came following reports that Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham have been meeting with oil and gas industry representatives as they work on their compromise. Graham has advocated more OCS activity since the trio announced its effort late last fall.

“It has come to our attention that some interests are aggressively pursuing an effort to open the nation’s coasts and oceans for unfettered access to oil and gas drilling. This is of great concern to us,” the senators said in their letter.

“While we must increase the domestic production of energy both on and off shore, we believe those efforts should concentrate on building a clean energy economy reliant on sustainable, renewable, domestic resources,” they indicated.

Areas of concern
Their letter cited concerns over offshore oil and gas activity’s possible interference with US military operations and possible impacts on adjacent states and their coastal waters. It also expressed opposition to the federal government’s sharing new production royalties and revenues with coastal states, and indicated that any new production would not be enough to keep prices from climbing.

Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Jack Reed (D-RI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Edward E. Kaufman (D-Del.), and Ronald L. Wyden (D-Ore.) also signed the letter.

The bill which Rep. Robert A. Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced, meanwhile, with seven other US House members from the Old Dominion as cosponsors, would require MMS and the US Department of the Interior, at the request of Virginia’s governor, to proceed with OCS leasing off the state’s coast within one year of the measure’s passage.

“Virginians understand that a major component in lessening energy costs is to produce more energy,” the federal lawmaker said. “In addition to helping us become energy independent, this legislation will help create thousands of jobs for Virginians and infuse the commonwealth with new capital growth.”

Reps. Robert J. Wittman (R), Glenn C. Nye (D), J. Randy Forbes (R), Tom Perriello (D), Eric J. Cantor (R), Rick Boucher (D), and Frank R. Wolf (R) are the bill’s cosponsors. It has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee.

Soon after he took office in January, Virginia Gov. Robert C. McDonnell (R) asked Salazar to proceed with the 2011 lease sale as scheduled. His predecessor, Timothy M. Kaine (D), had requested that it be postponed.

Warner-Webb letter
Virginia’s two US senators, Democrats Mark R. Warner and James A. Webb, asked Salazar to move ahead with the lease sale in a Jan. 27 letter. “The offering of 2.9 million acres 50 miles off the coast of Virginia would significantly improve Virginia’s and America’s energy security, as well as assist in meeting growing energy demands,” they told the secretary.

Responding to a question during her Mar. 25 appearance before the House Natural Resources Committee’s Energy and Minerals Subcommittee, however, Birnbaum said that DOI efforts to correct environmental deficiencies which a federal court found in the current 5-year OCS schedule could affect the 2011 lease sale off Virginia’s coast.

Oil and gas trade association officials nevertheless applauded the action by Goodlatte and the seven other members of Virginia’s US House delegation.

“Virginians—along with their governor, both of their Democratic senators, much of the congressional delegation, and the city council of Virginia Beach, off which much of the development would take place—understand that offshore leasing and development can bring much-needed jobs and revenue to the state, especially with a workable revenue-sharing provision,” said American Petroleum Institute Pres. Jack N. Gerard.

National Ocean Industries Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi noted that the House members’ bill continues similar efforts by other Virginia leaders. “Two weeks ago, Gov. McDonnell signed two state laws that virtually opened the door and put out the welcome mat to energy development off its shores,” he observed. “Today, Virginia is still holding the door open and hoping the federal government will take a seat at the table.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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