By Ben Bovarnick
On Wednesday, the Republican-led House Natural Resources Committee voted 24-17 to approve a bill designed to increase exploitation of oil and gas reserves off America’s coasts. Determining that the Obama administration’s plan to open 75 percent of US oil reserves for lease was insufficient, Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA) proposed a bill to lease huge tracts along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, as well as smack in the middle of some of Alaska’s richest fishing grounds.
Though the devastation from Deepwater Horizon is still being felt throughout the Gulf Coast, the House hopes to lease more federal drill sites to oil companies, in spite of their reluctance to utilize 72 percent of leases they currently hold. As was noted by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), “here in the Republican House of Representatives, it is oil above all else,” even if this means placing our nation’s beaches, fisheries and coastal tourism industries at risk.
Republicans claim that this bill is a necessary response to the Obama Administration’s decision to restrict leasing in 85 percent of the US Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). In fact, the Department of Interior has already opened 75 percent of known oil deposits in the OCS to leasing. The 85 percent calculation refers to the entire OCS, regardless of the presence of oil.
One justification for the bill was to provide Virginia and South Carolina the ability to exploit the resources off their state coasts. Republicans such as Rep. Jeff Landry (LA) rationalized that, “if those states want to drill off their coast, they should have the right to do so.”
However, in spite of their fervent support for states’ rights, they repeatedly ignored pleas from other coastal representatives to respect the anti-drilling desires of their own constituents. Though confronted by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) that “the state of California’s view is no more leases—use existing leases,” and an amendment that would have allowed the state of New Jersey to exclude lease sales off its coast through referendum, Republicans disregarded these appeals to state sovereignty in an effort to provide an overly friendly business environment to oil prospectors and open the maximum acreage to oil and gas drilling.
In a further effort to expedite federal leasing, the bill would alter existing environmental protection standards, directing the Department of Interior to prepare a single Environmental Impact Statement for all leases included in the bill. Rep. Hastings deemed this sufficient to justify that the bill “safely opens these new areas.” However, as Rep. Garamendi noted, the bill “would require an environmental statement that is basically worthless,” lumping together the California coast, Atlantic, and Bristol Bay into one review. The ecosystems and environmental conditions of Southern California, Alaska, and the Atlantic are drastically different, and requiring one EIS for all three only serves to rush important precautions without due diligence.
Our coastlines provide a wealth of resources, jobs and economic vitality. Far from providing a jobs boon as Republicans suggest, this bill would trample the rights of some states, disrupt existing coastal industries, and force the federal government to disregard established environmental protections to suit the interests of Big Oil.