The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Offshore Drilling Back on Washington Agenda*

by Michelle Chen

*A correction was appended to this news brief after initial publication.

Dec. 5, 2006 – Lawmakers and the Bush administration are renewing controversial efforts to blast open new channels for offshore oil and gas drilling in Florida and Alaska.

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The US House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill that would open up 8.3 million acres off Florida’s Gulf coast for drilling. The House Republican leadership approved the initiative for a vote as it prepares to yield to an incoming Democratic majority.

The plan involves leases for oil and natural gas exploration on the Outer Continental Shelf – underwater territory ringing the country’s coasts. The bill is a somewhat watered down version of earlier, more-ambitious proposals that would have essentially eliminated restrictions along the entire Shelf.

The Senate approved the Florida plan in August, aiming to feed domestic fuel demands while funneling royalties to federal and state governments. Under the special voting procedure, the bill will be considered with limited time for debate, but will need a two-thirds majority for passage.

Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council opposed the Senate bill, criticizing it as an effort to undermine environmental protections just to enrich the oil industry and Gulf Coast states.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has acknowledged it may rescind an executive moratorium on offshore drilling in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Industry interests and local tribal and business groups seeking revenues have pushed to repeal the ban.

Earlier congressional protections against drilling in Bristol Bay lapsed in 2003. A presidential ban has remained in place since the first Bush administration

In a joint letter last week, several advocacy organizations, led by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, decried the potential repeal. Calling the moratorium "the last line of defense" against potential ecological devastation, they urged President Bush to maintain protections for the area.

Bristol Bay harbors many native species of fish, birds and marine mammals, while also serving as a food source for local indigenous peoples. Drilling was barred in the bay in 1989, after the Exxon-Valdez bathed Prince William Sound in millions of gallons of crude oil and ignited outcry over the impacts of resource extraction in Alaska.

This year, offshore leases contributed about 15 and 25 percent of domestic natural gas and oil production respectively, according to the Interior Department’s Mineral Management Service. Environmental groups say opening more underwater ecosystems to exploitation amounts to little more than welfare for the energy industry.

According to government data, companies already hold more than 40 million leased offshore acres, yet only about 7 million acres are actually under production. Sierra Club has pointed to the data as evidence that corporations are hording public resources without alleviating energy demands.

CORRECTION

Major Change:

This article originally implied Bristol Bay, not Prince William Sound, was the site of the Exxon-Valdez spill. In fact, that incident did not directly affect the waters of Bristol Bay.

 | Change Posted December 6, 2006 at 09:50 AM EST

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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