Senate Approves Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration

By J.R. Pegg

June 12, 2003 (ENS) - The Senate voted today to keep a provision within its version of the Energy bill that calls for a comprehensive inventory of the nation's offshore oil and gas resources. Critics of the measure fear it is the first step toward lifting a 20 year ban on offshore drilling in many of the nation's coastal waters and could harm the environment and the economies of affected coastal states.

The amendment to strip the provision failed by a vote of 44 to 54, with a dozen Democrats joining 42 Republicans to defeat it. Supporters of the study say it makes sense for the federal government to identify available energy resources and contend that critics are misguided in their belief it is a precursor to lifting the ban on offshore oil drilling.

The provision requires the Secretary of the Interior to take an inventory of potential oil and gas resources of the entire U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) including coastal areas from Maine to Florida and Washington to California.

"We ought to find out what we have," said Senator Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and chair of the Senate Energy Committee. offshore

The Outer Continental Shelf currently accounts for some 30 percent of domestic oil production and about 27 percent of domestic natural gas production. (Photo courtesy U.S. Minerals Management Service)
Domenici says the Senate asked his committee to prepare an energy blueprint for the nation and that this measure simply helps lay out that blueprint.

This includes, Domenici said during the debate, property in the OCS that "we have already, as a nation, said based on today's circumstances we do not want to touch."

Since 1982, Congress has prevented the Interior Department from conducting leasing, pre-leasing and related activities in the moratorium areas, which include waters along the East and West coasts, as well as some waters off the coast of Alaska and within the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed an executive memorandum placing a ten-year moratorium on new leasing on the OCS, which was subsequently extended to 2012 by President Bill Clinton.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton says the administration's support for the moratorium is in no way compromised by its support for this new survey.

But critics find this difficult to believe.

"If this administration had a better record on the environment, I might be inclined to give them more leeway," said Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat.

"But this administration has shown an eagerness to roll back environmental protections on so many issues that they do not have much credibility when they say they want to just look for oil off our coasts," Murray said.

The nation already knows what offshore oil and gas resources it has, opponents of the survey say, and this new survey is duplicative, unnecessary and is not as benign as others might believe. strandedwhale

Environmentalists worry that increased seismic surveys of offshore oil and gas reserves could harm marine species, including pilot whales. (Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The Interior Department's Minerals Management Service already conducts such an inventory of the OCS every five years, said North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Republican and one of the amendment's 19 cosponsors.

Dole explained that the Minerals Management Service completed its last survey in 2000, and found that 80 percent of the nation's undiscovered, economically recoverable OCS gas is located in the Central and Western parts of the Gulf of Mexico, which is currently not subject to the moratorium.

"The only logical explanation for new data under [this provision] would be for future exploration activity like drilling, which is inconsistent with the current moratorium," Dole said. "It is vital that this nation boost its domestic oil production, but we can not do so by ignoring the wishes of coastal communities in North Carolina and other states that oppose drilling."

Dole said tourism in her state and others could be harmed by a move to roll back the moratorium and other critics fear increased surveying of offshore resources could cause needless environmental harm. The provision orders the Interior Secretary to use any available technology to conduct the inventory and requires the use of seismic surveys, which are prohibited by the current moratorium.

Although the oil and gas industry says the concerns are misstated, many environmentalists believe seismic studies, which use airguns and acoustic transducers, can cause irreparable damage to fish and marine mammals. These instruments produce sound at frequencies within the range of many marine species and have been linked to several stranding incidents over the past few years.

"This is not just about seeing what is out there," Murray said. "It is really about preparing to drill for oil and gas in areas that have been protected for years, for decades actually, by law."

"Oil companies are not going to spend millions of dollars to inventory our coasts just for the fun of it," Murray said. "They want to begin drilling in areas that are protected, and this Energy Bill would give them the start they want."

As the House stripped the survey from its Energy bill, the issue is set to be a point of contention when the two legislative bodies negotiate the final bill later this summer.