Democrats push for permanent bans on expansions of offshore oil and gas leasing

Oct. 26, 2020

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee devoted a forum Oct. 14 to advocating permanent bans on offshore leasing for oil and gas in US Atlantic and Pacific federal waters and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

President Trump in September expanded the moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to cover not only that area but the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, and to run from 2022 to 2032 (OGJ Online, Sept. 28, 2020). That was not nearly enough, according to Democrats and witnesses participating by video in the forum.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, suggested there was political calculation in Trump’s decision to extend the moratorium off the coasts of states important to the president’s reelection chances and potentially crucial to Republican control of the Senate.

Pollsters have been assessing Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina are swing states for the presidential race, while Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) both have tough reelection fights.

Trump’s moratorium extensions occurred less than 2 months before the elections. The Democrats’ forum to decry the risks of offshore oil drilling occurred 3 weeks before the elections.

Moratorium durability in doubt

The Democrats said Trump recently remarked that he could reverse a moratorium whenever he chooses, a reason for Congress to lock into law a permanent ban, in their view.

They also noted that Trump’s first Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, allowed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to propose opening up 90% of US federal waters to oil and gas leasing. That Jan. 4, 2018, proposal blew up politically and led Zinke to spend time reassuring many members of Congress that the final version of the 5-year leasing plan was unlikely to include waters off their states.

Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) used the forum to advocate for his Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act (H.R. 1941), which would permanently ban oil and gas leasing and seismic surveys for oil and gas in the Atlantic and Pacific.

The House passed Cunningham’s bill Sept. 11, 2019, the same day it passed a bill (H.R. 205) by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), to make the moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico permanent.

Both bills passed with overwhelming Democratic support and solid Republican opposition, with only handfuls of representatives crossing party lines from either side. The bills were referred in the Senate to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where no action has been taken on them.

Witnesses for the forum were drawn from South Carolina, Florida, and California, all of them opposed to offshore drilling.

Oil and gas associations have consistently argued that offshore drilling can be done safely and can make a significant contribution to the nation’s economy and regional coastal economies. The Democrats’ forum stressed risks to fisheries and tourism from oil spills.