House Committee Mulls Bills That Would Bar Offshore Drilling

An airplane flies over caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Legislation barring offshore oil development along America’s coastlines and inside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has considerable support from voters of all political stripes but during a hearing Monday, Republicans foretold doom for bills that are slated for a vote in the House this Thursday.

Most Floridians do not want offshore drilling. According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March, at least 64% of voters there are opposed to the idea. Memories of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, even nine years later, still evoke apprehension for residents who rely on clean water and beaches for their livelihood – and enjoyment.

“Whether its deformed coastal fish and species, what the researchers at the University of South Florida have found is that still, in deep water on the floor of the gulf, a layer of ‘dirty snow’ – leftover from the chemicals used to break up the oil – it’s still there. It’s still out there impacting the food web and everything else we love about the State of Florida,” Rep. Kathy Castor said during a House Committee on Rules legislative session held Monday.

The Florida Democrat advocated for passage of H.R. 205, a bill first sponsored by Florida Republican Representative Francis Rooney. It proposes placing a permanent ban on offshore drilling anywhere on the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico.

A drilling moratorium was originally enacted for the eastern side in 2006, but if passed, H.R. 205 takes it considerably further.

Republicans on the committee balked, arguing that permanent moratoriums on drilling would threaten U.S. energy independence for the indefinite future. Rooney rebuffed the claim.

“We are more than energy independent and I am in the oil business. There’s 20 billion barrels in the Permian Basin, plus 40 billion in the western part of the Gulf. The reason all the drilling is in the Western Gulf now is because that’s where the big reserves are,” Rooney said. “Why put all of Florida at risk for a nominal amount of production? It’s not justified by the return.”

No matter how conservative voters in Florida may be – or how supportive of President Donald Trump they may be, Rooney emphasized – the Trump administration loses ground in Florida when it comes to offshore drilling.

“They don’t want it, I met with red voters who agreed with everything else the administration was doing, but when we were done talking, they would say, ‘By the way, I hope you get that offshore drilling moratorium done,’” Rooney said.

Republicans such as Utah Representative Rob Bishop lightly praised Rooney’s bill but requested amendments be considered, including some that would assign military exclusion zones for drilling. Areas that are defense sensitive would be off the table, or, Bishop argued, they could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Other energy bills, including H.R. 1941 and H.R. 1146, were weighed Monday.

H.R. 1941, sponsored by South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham, blocks the Interior Department from leasing to oil developers vying for crude in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Though the bill has some bipartisan support, Bishop, along with other Republicans, said it would give too much control over federal waters to states. 

H.R. 1146 proposes to repeal a provision of the 2017 Trump tax bill that mandated the opening of oil and gas leases in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The first leases could be issued as soon as this year, despite a lack of complete environmental assessments or studies regarding the potential impact of oil spills on wildlife in the Arctic’s coastal plains.

The area developers want to drill in the Arctic may not even be accessible in the near future. According to a University of Alaska Fairbanks study released Sept. 7, the exploration area is now experiencing such rapid snowmelt at this point that drilling could be unfeasible, since heavy equipment would not be supported by the ground underfoot.

What some speculators suggest will be a treasure trove of crude in the Arctic may be little more than a pipe dream.  In an exclusive interview with the New York Times in April, Sidney Silverman, a former lawyer who represented Standard Oil of Ohio shareholders during a British Petroleum takeover over 30 years ago, said discovery wells at the time – according to confidential depositions – showed the refuge contained little to no oil.

Votes on the three bills are expected to take place in the House on Thursday. Even if the legislation passes in that chamber, the bills will likely die in the Senate where the Republican majority has historically heaped far less favor on any bills restricting fossil fuels.

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