Offshore Oil Drilling Debate Renewed in Senate Hearing

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The national debate over offshore oil drilling picked up again today at a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Though discussion wasn’t as heated as in the ’08 Presidential campaign that saw the Republican Party rally around the “Drill, Baby, Drill” slogan, the trade-offs Senators are going to have to weigh when settling national policy were put on full view.

The Committee passed its portion of the climate bill in June, and it included an amendment that would allow drilling for oil as close as 45 miles from Florida’s Gulf Coast – and even closer in the Destin Dome area off Pensacola.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, working on a climate bill proposal of their own, see increased offshore drilling as a necessary compromise for securing passage of a climate law that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Today’s hearings were called to address concerns raised last June on the environmental impacts of offshore development.

“Access to the vast resources of the OCS [outer continental shelf] is critical; we need it and it’s good for this country,” Shell president Marvin Odum argued at the time.

But many senators and organizations remain far from convinced that tells the whole story.

In July 2008, President George W. Bush lifted a moratorium on drilling on the outer continental shelf of the lower 48 states that had been in place since his father signed it into law in 1990. The next October, Congress allowed its own ban, which had been in place since 1982 and largely overlapped with the presidential one, to expire. That allowed the Bush administration to direct the Minerals Management Service, which had been prohibited under the moratoriums from selling leases for OCS areas, to draft a plan for re-opening those areas to drilling.

It was a plan that was immediately put on hold by Obama’s Interior Department this year, which put in place measures to ensure more careful analysis of offshore exploration’s impacts. A U.S. appeals court concurred with the move, declaring in April that the Bush plans had considered only effects on coastal communities and left out effects on the marine environment.

On Capitol Hill, some senators bemoan the recent developments.

“It’s now been over a year since the offshore moratorium was lifted, but there have been many executive actions and perhaps a few that have not been taken that are taking us in the opposite direction,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, citing Environmental Protection Agency delays in issuing air pollution permits for oil exploration ships and the setting aside of critical habitat for polar bears in Alaska.

The impatience of Murkowski and others to expand OCS drilling has run up against the impatience of others to get emissions-reducing legislation in place.

Drilling proponents say drilling is necessary for a U.S. economy that will depend on fossil fuels for many years to come, while others, like Sen. John Kerry, say drilling is necessary for political reasons — to get the 60 votes a Senate climate bill will need for passage.

Still disagreement remains on how much offshore drilling will contribute to the volume of U.S. domestic oil production as well as on the scope of the impact it will have on coastal communities, marine wildlife and habitat, and the economic activities that depend on an intact coastal ecosystem.

The top concern of many proponents of offshore expansion is weaning the U.S. off dependence on foreign sources, which, they are quick to point out, leads to sending money to potentially hostile foreign suppliers.

Yet, many others have questioned the actual impact of OCS drilling on domestic energy security. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who has opposed offshore drilling, said at the hearing,

“The Energy Information Administration has said the total unfettered drilling that some would seek on the outer continental shelf would have no significant impact on domestic oil production – or prices.”

Statistics from the Energy Information Adminsitration say that in 2030, when OCS production is expected to reach its peak, it will reduce US dependence on foreign oil only 2.5 percent, which translates into three cents a gallon at the pump.

In April of this year, the EIA said the U.S. imported 58 percent of its petroleum in 2007 and expects that dependence of foreign sources to decline over the next two decades. Still, the report says that the US produces 10 percent of the world’s petroleum and consumes 24 percent. 

If reducing dependence on foreign oil is a primary concern, say some groups, then the best solution is not necessarily to drill for more domestic oil but to reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed in the domestic economy.

A report last month from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace [] reaches the same conclusion, arguing that there are alternatives to offshore oil that would cut costs for consumers, reduce emissions and decrease demand – including for imported oil.

Whitney Leonard, the report’s lead author points to fuel economy standards and the development of more energy efficient vehicles as alternatives that make more sense than offshore oil in terms of decreasing U.S. reliance on foreign oil.

In terms of the economic impact of increased offshore exploration, a report from the Sierra Club and Environment America from the end of last month puts the annual value of tourism and commercial and recreational fishing in the lower 48 states at $197.1 billion and the value of oil and gas extraction from the same regions at $163.9 billion. 

“Good economic policy should tilt in favor of sustainable uses of the ocean rather than the extraction of oil and gas because sustainable uses yield more economic and environmental benefits,” the report argues.

“Oceana opposes expanded offshore oil and gas development because we and many other conservation organizations believe the environmental risks are poorly understood and are not justified by the potential economic benefits,” Jeffrey Short of the conservation organization Oceana said at the hearing.

This issue of having the technology to assess and mitigate impacts was the major topic of discussion at the hearing Thursday.

“We are not forced to choose between OCS development and the environment; we can have both,” argued Shell’s Odum. “More than 30,000 wells have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico [and this has shown] that we can and do manage and mitigate environmental impacts responsibly – and our record continues to improve.”


“Claims that oil and gas development have had little effect on marine life in the Gulf of Mexico ring rather hollow because we do not have the information to compare the ecosystems over time and determine how exactly they have changed,” contended Short. “Decisions about development should be guided by a plan that prioritizes marine ecosystems and the services they provide.”