Ocean Drilling Study Worries Dems

The sun sets over oil drilling platforms in the Pacific Ocean off the coast near Santa Barbara, Calif., Jan. 24, 2002.
AP
Congress is considering requiring the government to take a fresh inventory of all oil and gas reserves beneath America's coastal waters, prompting concern by some lawmakers that the study may be a prelude to lifting a decades-old ocean drilling ban.

The survey of Outer Continental Shelf energy reserves is included in a broad energy bill the House was taking up Thursday, a day after a Senate committee turned back an attempt to kill the new review, which also is part of its energy package.

Arguing that such a study is not needed, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said its true aim is "increasing the political pressure" to lift the ban on oil and gas development that has been in place since 1982 for most U.S. coastal waters.

"Why study oil and gas resources that can't be developed anyway?" added Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who along with Graham sought to exempt from the study coastal areas under the drilling moratoria.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee rejected their amendment 17-6.

"It's nothing more than a study," insisted Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the panel's chairman. "Would we not like to know what (resources) we've got?"

While acknowledging that the Interior Department already provides estimates of oil and gas reserves in coastal waters, Domenici said the estimates weren't based "on the most modern technology," including 3-D seismic techniques, which would be allowed under the legislation.

Environmentalists complained that even if the studies don't lead to a lifting of the drilling moratoria, the seismic tests themselves — which use high decibel noise generated by firing an air gun underwater — are harmful to fish and other sea life.

"Even the smallest seismic airgun array can significantly injure fish at substantial distances," said Lisa Speer, a marine biologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said there is evidence the seismic surveys in the central and western Gulf "seriously affect" a variety of whales, including the sperm whale protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The oil and gas industry has maintained that the danger to sea creatures from seismic studies has been exaggerated. Also, they say, restrictions and other requirements such as monitoring test areas for whales, gradually ramping up noise levels to drive sea life away from test sites and restrictions on noise levels can mitigate the impact.

The concern of some lawmakers, however, is that the new studies are simply the first step in lifting the moratoria on gas and oil development that have existed across most of the Outer Continental Shelf outside of the central and western Gulf of Mexico where most U.S. offshore energy development now takes place.

"There's a need to know what resources are out there," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, arguing for the new study.

Ed Murphy of the American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for the largest oil companies, put it slightly differently: "If the study says there's likely to be oil and gas, it would certainly raise the issue of how much (available resource) are you willing to give up for the supposed environmental gain."

The Bush administration has said it has no intention of tampering with the OCS moratoria that were first imposed by Congress on a yearly basis and in 1990 extended for 10 years by the first President Bush. In 1998, President Clinton extended them again to 2012.

Under the moratoria, waters along both the East and West coasts as well as the eastern Gulf of Mexico and some waters off Alaska are protected from oil and gas development. In a letter to lawmakers, the Interior Department said the proposed new inventory "does not affect the moratoria ... or our commitment to them."

While the OCS study mandate is almost certainly to be part of energy legislation expected to emerge from Congress later this year, it is only one of many provisions attracting scrutiny.

Among key elements in the House bill are a string of proposals to spur energy development, including $18 billion in tax breaks, most of them aimed at developing traditional energy sources. Critics say the House bill gives little attention to promoting energy efficiency. A proposal endorsed by the White House for a tax credit for hybrid gas-electric cars was rejected in committee.

The House bill also:

  • Calls for developing the millions of barrels of oil that lie beneath Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Allows companies to avoid federal royalty payments on natural gas taken from very deep wells.
  • Gives federal energy regulators authority to locate electric power lines if states fail to do so.
  • Doubles the use of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline additive.
  • Streamlines the licensing process for hydroelectric dams.