May 15, 2006 – For some in places of power, the key to solving Americaâ€™s energy crisis lies not in regulating fuel prices, or in making gas-guzzling cars run more efficiently, but at the bottom of the ocean. Capitalizing on the public anxiety that is rising alongside soaring energy costs, politicians and their oil-industry donors are renewing their pursuit of untapped oil and gas reserves off the coastline, which have remained off-limits for a generation.
Last week, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that would repeal longstanding congressional moratoria on offshore drilling. Congress has continuously renewed the restrictions since the early 1980s, and drilling is currently limited to parts of the Gulf of Mexico and some coastal Alaskan waters.
Environmental groups fear that this year, legislation to permit offshore drilling could be greased by bloated gasoline prices and apprehensions about dependence on foreign oil. At stake is federal territory known as the Outer Continental Shelf, which encompasses millions of acres of waters immediately surrounding the United States, stretching from about three to 200 miles offshore.
Jim Presswood, a policy advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The NewStandard that expanding drilling on the Shelf would pave the way for an assault of the countryâ€™s beaches and coastal waters by oil rigs and industrial pollution. "Essentially what you [will] have is an industrialization of our coastlines," he said.
Politicians and their oil-industry donors are renewing their pursuit of untapped oil and gas reserves off the coastline, which have remained off-limits for a generation.
Under pressure from an array of industry groups, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have offered several proposals â€“ including the one passed by the House Appropriations Committee â€“ that would either end or rollback the current moratoria.
The recently approved amendment, tacked onto interior and environment spending legislation by Representative John Peterson (R-Pennsylvania), would blast open the Atlantic and Pacific coasts for drilling. The arrangement would authorize leases specifically for tapping natural gas reserves, a process purportedly less harmful to the environment than spill-prone oil projects. Environmentalists, however, say the gas-only label masks the fact that companies typically prospect for both oil and gas simultaneously.
In the Senate, Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) has proposed a bill to open over 3.5 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas drilling.
Since the 1989 election cycle, interests in the energy and natural resources sector have funneled more than $200,000 in political contributions to Rep. Peterson, and more than $1.1 million to Sen. Domenici, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks federal campaign donations.
Environmentalists fear that if Congress gives the green light, the White House will rescind an additional coastline protection: a "presidential deferral" on offshore drilling enacted under the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The various legislative proposals would fit neatly with the Interior Departmentâ€™s recently released five-year plan to expand leasing of offshore oil and gas reserves.
Environmentalists argue that expanding offshore drilling would pave the way for an assault of the countryâ€™s beaches and coastal waters by oil rigs and industrial pollution.
Opponents see offshore drilling as inherently harmful to aquatic ecosystems. In an environmental impact statement on drilling activities in the Gulf of Mexico, the Interior Departmentâ€™s Mineral Management Service stated that the "unavoidable" consequences of offshore drilling include the erosion of wetlands, air-polluting emissions, chemical contamination, the dumping of industrial waste and debris and the depletion of fish populations.
Despite claims by the industry association American Petroleum Institute that new technologies make drilling safer and less damaging, since 1997, the government has documented over 80 large spills, and over 40 explosions in offshore operations.
In Alaskaâ€™s Cook Inlet, offshore drillingâ€™s murky track record has exposed hazards that might spread to other coasts if Congress authorizes new exploration. In spite of restrictions on industrial discharges imposed by the Clean Water Act, a special rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency permits oil and gas developers to pour tens of thousands of gallons of chemical pollutants each day into designated "mixing zones," which blend the contamination into local waterways.
Offshore drilling has stirred criticism not only among environmentalists, but also in the coastal tourism and fishing industries, which have an economic stake in protecting marine environments. Fishermenâ€™s trade associations, for instance, have opposed the use of explosive seismic machinery to prospect for submerged oil and gas reserves. Researchers have found that the blasts could severely reduce local fish populations.
Opponents of offshore drilling promote alternative ways of meeting the countryâ€™s energy needs without plundering finite domestic resources.
According to government estimates, the off-limits oil zones contain about 18.9 billion barrels of oil, while the country consumed about 7.5 billion barrels last year.
Though promises of vast underwater resources exert a strong pull in Washington, critics argue that the peril outweighs the potential.
"What are we doing this for? Weâ€™re putting our industry at risk, the marketing of our fish, the resources at risk, for what is at best some marginal amounts of fuel," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Institute for Fisheries Resources, which represents small and mid-sized commercial fishermen.
But for the manufacturing sector, the hunger for fuel is driving big business seaward.
The National Association of Manufacturers has joined the American Chemistry Council and other industry groups in lobbying for offshore drilling and other pro-fossil-fuel policies. Kat Snodgrass, a spokesperson for the Association, said that high energy costs drive up expenses at every point in the supply chain, from chemical product components to transportation, and "have steered some of our members from hiring new employees or expanding."
Snodgrass added that while her organization is mainly interested in "getting as much energy as possible, whether itâ€™s natural gas or gasoline, or renewable or alternative energies," manufacturers are focusing on offshore drilling as the most immediate answer to the current crisis.
Environmentalists, on the other hand, point out that if the industry gets its way, expanding offshore energy exploitation might not actually alleviate the current burden on consumers. To maximize returns, critics argue, developers tend to sit on their leases, waiting for the market to ripen and prices to rise.
"You buy the tracts cheap," explained Richard Charter, co-chair of the National Outer Continental Shelf Coalition, "and you sell whatever you find there back to the American people at the pump, years later, at an escalated price." As of 2005, the Interior Department reports, fewer than 250 offshore drilling wells were actively producing, while more than 3,600 were suspended or otherwise inactive.
Noting that fossil-fuel industries have consistently fattened themselves on federal subsidies, tax breaks and relief from royalties on leased lands, Charter said the proposed drilling expansion would continue a pattern of "giving away public-trust resources to a very profitable industry that has manipulated prices, and manipulated the market, and is now hoping to again manipulate the US Congress."
Though the White House has not taken a formal stance on the pending legislation, at his recent Senate confirmation hearing, Bushâ€™s pick for Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, cited the need to capitalize on Outer Continental Shelf drilling to alleviate energy supply problems.
Some liberal environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Florida Public Interest Research Group have backed a compromise bill introduced by Senators Bill Nelson (D) and Mel Martinez (R), both from Florida, that would cancel existing leases off the Florida coast and generally make the current moratoria permanent.
In exchange, however, the bill would permit resource exploitation on about 700,000 acres of waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
More broadly, opponents of offshore drilling promote alternative ways of meeting the countryâ€™s energy needs without plundering finite domestic resources.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is calling for a comprehensive government program to promote alternative fuels, increase energy efficiency in industry and local communities and make cars more fuel-efficient. Within two decades, the group argues, the plan could cut oil consumption by 40 percent, or 11 million barrels per day, and efficiency-promoting tax incentives could save 3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, or about 10 percent of total annual consumption.
"The bottom line is, the United States cannot drill its way to lower energy prices or to energy independence," commented Annie Strickler, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club. At the current rate of consumption, she argued, "we can look under every rock, every grain of sand, every inch of arctic tundra, and still be looking elsewhere for oil and gas supplies if we continue to rely on fossil fuels."