US House bills aim to thwart Trump administration’s offshore agenda

Preserving coastal US states and communities’ vibrant recreation and commercial fishing economies is more important than increasing US offshore oil and gas exploration and development, sponsors of three bills and witnesses told a House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee on Apr. 2.

Apr 3rd, 2019

Preserving coastal US states and communities’ vibrant recreation and commercial fishing economies is more important than increasing US offshore oil and gas exploration and development, sponsors of three bills and witnesses told a House Natural Resources Committee subcommittee on Apr. 2.

“The Trump administration couldn’t care less about coastal communities and has decided to risk the livelihoods of millions to further pad the pockets of a handful of oil and gas industry executives,” Energy and Minerals Subcommittee Chairman Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) observed in his opening statement.

Noting that the US Department of the Interior is considering opening more than 90% of the US Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas activity in its next 5-year leasing plan, he said that President Donald Trump “wants to satisfy Big Oil’s insatiable appetite with 1.6 billion acres of America’s oceans, all the while rolling back the safety and environmental protections which were developed in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.”

Lowenthal said, “I have news for the president: Americans have zero interest in handing more of our oceans over to oil and gas corporations. The inevitable spills and the variety of onshore and offshore impacts from oil and gas drilling have no place along our East and West coasts, or in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.”

The subcommittee’s ranking minority member, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), noted in his opening statement that the measures all were intended “to stymie offshore energy production” on the US OCS.

The three bills the subcommittee considered were:

H.R. 1941, introduced by Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) on Mar. 28, would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to keep the US Interior secretary from authorizing additional oil and gas activity on the OCS off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

H.R. 205, introduced by Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) on Jan. 3, would make the eastern Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium—enacted in 2006—permanent.

H.R. 1149, introduced by Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-NJ) on Feb. 11, would keep the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management from issuing geological and geophysical permits to five offshore contractors wanting to conduct the first oil and gas seismic surveys off the East Coast since the 1980s.

Cunningham told the subcommittee that his bill has strong bipartisan support. “We often hear from the oil and gas industry that large spills are not common. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: There is no such thing as a small oil spill. When you drill, you spill. Nobody can truthfully look this committee in the eye and say that there will be no spills if we drill off our coasts,” he said.

“Putting aside that inevitable risk, we’re also confronted with another reality: Offshore oil and gas comes with a large onshore footprint,” Cunningham said. “BOEM’s draft program includes oil and gas sales in the South Atlantic which includes South Carolina. Every single city and town council along the South Carolina coast has voted to oppose drilling and seismic testing.”

Rooney, whose bill would make the drilling moratorium in the eastern gulf permanent, said that offshore oil and gas activity there would pose an existential threat to Florida’s recreation, tourism, and general economy. “Tourism is highly competitive and any conditions which could, however remotely or mistakenly, give rise to the possibility of a spill or other adverse impact to the west coast of Florida as a result of drilling and exploration in the eastern gulf,” he testified.

In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment banning oil and gas activity in state waters which netted more than 5 million votes statewide and passed with 68.9% of the vote, Rooney said. “In addition to the serious economic risks, the US does not need to trash the eastern Florida coast to be energy secure,” he said, citing an Apr. 1 Wall Street Journal article that said that the US now is tied with Saudi Arabia and Russia in average daily crude oil exports. “Further, there’s just not enough oil in the eastern gulf to justify the threat to Florida. The major activity right now is off Mexico and South Texas,” Rooney said.

Van Drew, who was scheduled to discuss his bill, did not attend the hearing because he was ill, Lowenthal said. Gosar mentioned it during his opening statement, however. “Seismic testing for oil and gas has not occurred in the Atlantic Ocean since the 1980s. The technology has advanced significantly since that time,” he established. “Without updated resource assessments provided through modern seismic surveys, we do not have clear and comprehensive data on the oil and gas resources in the region.”

A group of witnesses who testified primarily consisted of local officials and business leaders who said that preserving their communities’ healthy recreation and tourism economies was more important than allowing domestic offshore oil and gas activity to expand.

‘No one will come’

“In a comparison of hurricanes and oil spills, when Hurricane Hugo hit, our town was wiped out and tourism stopped. The same would apply to an oil spill. No one will come. In fact, in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and for a few years after, we had an uptick of vacationers who used to go to the Gulf Coast but who were coming now to Charleston,” said Jimmy Carroll, Mayor of Sea of Palms, SC.

“There is an idea that with the introduction of expanded offshore drilling there will be the creation of new jobs. I urge you to think on these claims critically,” urged David Yates, executive director of the Clearwater (Fla.) Marine Aquarium. “The oil industry is not a dependable or durable foundation on which we should build our economies. On the other hand, jobs that come from coastal businesses and tourism offer a consistent revenue stream that will be passed on to future generations and will not waver. They’re here; all we have to do is protect them.”

Vipul Desai, a founding member of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast in California, said that opposition to more offshore oil and gas activity is growing nationwide. “More than 2,100 local, state, and federal elected officials have voiced strong opposition to offshore oil and gas drilling off US coasts,” he testified. Local and state governments have already taken official actions in representing the overwhelming constituent opposition to offshore oil drilling. It now is time for the federal government to follow that lead and bring to an end plans for lease sales and offshore drilling activities off our coastlines.”

A fourth witness—Louisiana State Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell)—asked subcommittee members to consider positive economic impacts the oil and gas industry has had in that state which also supports thriving tourism and recreation businesses. “In my opinion, coastal communities do not need to be protected from offshore drilling, but instead should partner with offshore operators to identify synergies for the mutual benefit of all of our citizens,” she said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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