Senators, witnesses list proposed 2017-22 OCS leasing program’s flaws

Republican committee members and several witnesses leveled some of the strongest criticism yet of the US Department of the Interior’s proposed 2017-22 Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas program at a May 19 US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Republican committee members and several witnesses leveled some of the strongest criticism yet of the US Department of the Interior’s proposed 2017-22 Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas program at a May 19 US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

They directed their rebukes primarily at US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Ross Hopper, who defended removal of a Mid-Atlantic lease sale in March from the next 5-year OCS plan(OGJ Online, Mar. 15, 2016) and targeted, instead of area-wide, sales offshore Alaska during that period.

“I think it’s a much more complicated and nuanced conversation than some might suggest,” she said in response to Republicans’ assertions that BOEM and DOI are ignoring strong support for federal offshore leasing from Alaskan and Mid-Atlantic states’ governors and congressional delegations to respond to a vocal minority of coastal community leaders and environmental activists.

“Sales will be tailored to offer areas that have significant resource potential, while appropriately weighing environmental protection, subsistence use needs, and other considerations,” Hopper said.

Hopper got some support from Ranking Minority Member Maria E. Cantwell (D-Wash.), who said in her opening statement that a prudent federal offshore leasing program is justified because many questions arising from the Macondo deepwater oil well blowout and spill 6 years ago have not been answered satisfactorily. Cantwell said she also supports the removal of Virginia’s lease sale, and believes Interior should not allow Mid-Atlantic OCS seismic surveys until they can be shown not to harm marine mammals.

Pointed questions

But two committee Republicans—Chair Lisa Murkowski (Alas.) and member Bill Cassidy (La.)—pointedly questioned DOI and BOEM’s justifications for canceling the lease sale that had been scheduled offshore Virginia. “A 2014 study estimated that a robust Atlantic leasing program could result in new oil production of 1.3 million b/d and 280,000 new jobs by 2035,” Murkowski said in her opening statement. “Even if the Atlantic’s resources aren’t that prolific, [DOI’s] decision will still cost our country for years to come.”

Cassidy asked Hopper: “Does it simply take a vocal minority showing up to derail what the state’s governors, senators, and business leaders want? Can it override the will of what a majority of the state’s people support?”

Hopper replied, “I can’t answer that question because other reasons were considered.” These included “significant potential conflicts with other ocean uses, such as the Department of Defense and commercial interests; current market dynamics; and opposition from many coastal communities,” she said.

When Cassidy said offshore oil and gas activity has flourished in the Gulf of Mexico alongside US military operations and commercial fishing and recreation for decades, Hopper responded the oil and gas industry grew slowly there but potentially could arrive more quickly along the Mid-Atlantic OCS and disrupt other uses there.

Cassidy then said that Mid-Atlantic OCS federal leasing would take place 50 miles out to sea beyond the majority of military and recreation activity, and added that BOEM has approved wind power projects out there. Hopper replied that wind power projects won’t potentially lead to crude oil spills.

But other witnesses raised questions about DOI and BOEM’s approach to the next 5-year OCS leasing program. They included:

• John Hopson Jr., mayor of the Alaskan North Slope city of Wainwright, who said that an active offshore oil and gas industry there has coexisted for decades with subsistence living, and in fact has become essential for its continued existence. “Some members of Congress are in love with their own visions of Arctic indigenous communities,” he said. “I support retaining Arctic lease sales in the OCS schedule in a way that allows us to retain our way of life.”

• Donald F. Boesch, a University of Maryland marine science professor and a member of the presidential committee investigating the 2010 Macondo incident, who said the next 5-year program should recognize substantial federal offshore regulatory and oil and gas industry progress in the time since. Congress still needs to raise oil-spill liability limits, require the industry to help pay for necessary environmental science and regulatory reviews, and protect offshore industry whistleblowers, he said.

• Joseph R. Mason, chair of the Banking Department at Louisiana State University’s E.J. Ourso College of Business, who said that very low interest rates help make federal leases more valuable than ever to the industry despite depressed oil and gas prices. “The takeaway here is that every lease that is withheld sacrifices economic growth,” he told the committee. “Counterintuitively, these cutbacks also could have global warming impacts. By restricting clean oil output in the gulf, BOEM is not only sacrificing production that produces jobs and economic growth but also forces more reliance on dirtier oil sources.”

• James H. Knapp, an earth, ocean, and environment professor at the University of South Carolina, who said he has been a vocal advocate for the past 8 years for gathering fresh Atlantic OCS seismic data. “More than 240,000 miles of 2D seismic data were acquired along the Atlantic OCS between the 1960s and 1980s,” he testified. “Nothing new has been added since as other uses have grown there. I would challenge the assumption that no new data are necessary. The federal government is mandated to evaluate the OCS resource potential. If a lease sale is considered anytime in the future, we should see whether it’s even necessary.”

Knapp discussed another reason to proceed with Atlantic OCS seismic surveys. “In today’s world, we learn more about one continental margin when we look at an opposing one,” he said. “Since the West African continental shelf is awash with oil activity, I believe it would be prudent to see if this might be possible here.”

BOEM’s Hopper replied, ““We actually have used some of those analogous coasts, such as Africa, in updating our estimates.” The agency issued a record of decision in July 14 to begin permitting such activity, “but there have been delays,” she continued without elaborating.

But International Association of Geophysical Contractors Executive Vice-Pres. Walt Rosenbusch said in March that longer-than-normal delays in getting incidental take authorizations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service are keeping several of his association’s members from going to work out there (OGJ Online, Mar. 14, 2016).

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