New Bill Could Fast-Track Offshore Drilling
BY NEEL KELLER
THE OUTER BANKS SENTINEL
After President Donald Trump signed an executive order last April restarting the process of awarding offshore energy drilling leases in the Mid- and South-Atlantic, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that process — with its multiple reviews and public comment periods — would be a lengthy one.
But a potential game changer has emerged with proposed federal legislation that could dramatically speed up the timetable for putting oil rigs in the Atlantic. On Oct. 11, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a legislative hearing on a “discussion draft” of the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act (ASTRO).
The bill, which is so new it does not have a number assigned to it, would streamline and speed up the process for holding offshore drilling lease sales by amending key provisions in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) and bestowing greater and less restricted authority upon the Secretary of the Interior to determine where and when to hold the sales.
At this point, few are eager to assess the chances that such a measure would become law, but early reaction from local opponents of offshore drilling was sharply critical. Drilling opponents have often cited concerns ranging from the impact on marine life to the economic fallout from an oil spill washing up on the beaches of a popular resort area.
Surfrider Foundation Outer Banks Chapter Co-Chair Matt Walker argued that the supporters of the bill, “rather than follow the traditional democratic process that allows states and municipalities to engage in thoughtful discussion and determine their own futures, [are] seeking to rewrite the federal rules to subvert the will of the people.”
Noting the Dare Board of Commissioners’ numerous resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing, Chairman Bob Woodard told the Sentinel, “I would be highly opposed to any action that takes our position on this out of the process.”
Allison Tucker, communications director for U.S. Representative Walter Jones, whose district includes Dare County, said “we are at the very beginning stages of this legislation,” adding that it could undergo significant changes before getting to the floor of the House. “For that reason, I think it is too early to comment.”
But one spokesperson who asked not to be identified cited speculation about “a possibility the bill could go to the floor and pass the House by the end of the year.”
In its current form, the proposed legislation would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct lease sales without following any of the procedures previously established by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) that called for multiple environmental assessments, hearings and the finalization of a five year plan.
The bill would also establish a revenue sharing structure for the Atlantic states and Alaska, calling for the states to receive 37.5% of revenues from offshore oil and gas leasing and development.
During the Oct. 11 committee hearing, almost all the speakers supported the ASTRO bill.
American Petroleum Institute official Erik Milito touted the oil industry’s ability to provide jobs and oil. And he asserted that these contributions could be far greater if development of the 94% of the Outer Continental Shelf that is currently “off-limits to oil and natural gas development” were made accessible.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar, (R-AZ), cited the “millions of direct and indirect jobs across the country,” as well as the “billions of dollars in revenues to the government” created by the energy industry. “It is critical that we maintain and increase access to offshore exploration and production to improve upon these trends.”
Senator Stephen Goldfinch, a member of the South Carolina State Senate who represents three coastal counties, hailed the bill as providing “an opportunity for our state to see much-needed additional economic improvements, investment and job creation.”
In Dare County, there have been a number of public protests and displays of opposition to offshore energy drilling in recent years. An Aug. 10 meeting in Manteo hosted by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality turned out a crowd of more than 120 residents to warn of the “catastrophic” consequences of offshore energy exploration.
Kill Devil Hills Mayor Sheila Davies told the Sentinel, “My first reaction to this proposed legislation is disgust,” adding that “taking action on items of such significance without considering public input is wrong and is a clear violation of the American Society for Public Administration’s Code of Ethics.”
For her part, Diane Hoskins, of the environmental advocacy group Oceana, asked citizens to contact their representatives in Washington, and suggested the bill could run into stiff opposition.
“We understand a few in Congress want to move the bill ahead quickly, but we intend to help ensure that does not happen,” she said. “We expect this bill to face difficulties before it reaches the House floor because offshore drilling proposals face strong bipartisan opposition in Congress.”