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Top Republican on climate subcommittee supports offshore drilling despite bipartisan outcry

Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) embraces offshore drilling.

Offshore drilling rig. CREDIT: Eren Bozkurt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Offshore drilling rig. CREDIT: Eren Bozkurt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The top Republican on the House subcommittee devoted to climate change offered a strident defense of offshore drilling during a hearing on Tuesday despite significant bipartisan opposition to the issue. His comments come as Republicans struggle to find their footing on climate change and offer a plan of their own to answer growing calls for action.

Lawmakers and local community leaders spoke out during the hearing on three separate bills seeking to limit or block offshore drilling in Pacific and Atlantic waters. In early 2018, President Donald Trump announced plans to open up virtually all U.S. waters to offshore drilling.

The hearing highlighted the bipartisan opposition to offshore drilling shared by states on those coasts, with lawmakers from South Carolina and Florida among those railing against the Trump administration’s ambitions. But Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), the top Republican on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, had heated words for his peers in the room.

“This has largely been a fact-less discussion,” the Gulf Coast Republican declared midway through the hearing, arguing that lawmakers “have to make decisions based on facts.”

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His comments ran counter to much of the testimony offered in the hearing, which came largely from offshore drilling opponents. The three bills being discussed would respectively extend a moratorium on drilling in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, block Atlantic seismic drilling permits, and prohibit offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The sponsor of the last bill, Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC), spoke passionately about his commitment to defending coastal states from drilling.

“We often hear from the oil and gas industry that large spills are not common… there is no such thing as a small oil spill,” said Cunningham, who was elected in part thanks to his opposition to offshore drilling.

Cunningham is a Democrat, but South Carolina’s Republican governor and attorney general have both come out against offshore drilling, which is deeply unpopular along the state’s coasts. The lawmaker highlighted that unity repeatedly throughout the hearing, touting the “bipartisan” backing behind his own bill, which includes Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) as a co-sponsor.

“Every single city and town council along the South Carolina coastline has voted to oppose seismic testing and drilling,” said Cunningham at one point, repeating the sentence once more for emphasis.

Graves, however, struck a very different tone. While he thanked speakers for sharing their “opinions,” the Louisiana Republican swiftly mounted an attack on those assembled in the room, emphasizing the role offshore drilling has played in his state’s economy.

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“[People say] ‘when you drill, you spill’ — that’s not what statistics show,” he argued, pointing to a line used often throughout the hearing by drilling opponents. Oil spills in U.S. waters have been a source of major concern due to disasters like the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which devastated the Gulf Coast.

A separate oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been leaking for 14 years. Last October, the Coast Guard ordered Taylor Energy Co. to clean up the spill or face a $40,000 per day fine.

Graves’ stance is in keeping with broader Republican consensus on environmental issues, with the party still largely skeptical about climate action. But Graves holds more weight given his position on the climate subcommittee. The committee lacks subpoena powers and cannot draft legislation, but its creation by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been pushed as a concerted effort to address climate change, at a time when the U.S. public is growing more and more concerned about global warming and demanding action.

Most of the six Republicans named to the committee are deeply conservative when it comes to climate change. But Graves’ appointment offered a change of pace — a Republican who accepts the established climate science and has historically worked with environmental groups, in addition to supporting climate adaptation and mitigation efforts.

On Tuesday, however, Graves largely toed the party line, sparring with offshore drilling opponents and refuting the arguments made by speakers like Rooney, the Florida Republican, who spoke out about the economic impacts of oceanic oil and gas exploration. He also engaged in a terse shouting match with Vipe Desai, a founding member of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Pacific Coast (BAPPC).

“I came up here to make a case that our coastal waters are important, not only to our nation, but also to our states,” Desai said to Graves, who yelled in opposition in the background while waiving a paper containing graphs arguing the benefits of offshore drilling.

“I’m not here to make things up,” Desai continued.

That heated exchange was small, but it comes as Republicans struggle to find a message on climate change. Many Democrats have rallied around the Green New Deal resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). Republicans have vehemently opposed the resolution, but they have stumbled in crafting a response of their own to tackle the issue. Only Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has offered any plan — a 10-point “Manhattan Project”-style effort that involves no emissions reduction targets or real specifics about how to address the climate crisis.

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All the while, Republicans are fracturing on issues like offshore drilling, with every single governor on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts opposed, regardless of party.

“The fact remains clear — every East and West Coast governor, with solid backing from coastal communities and tens of thousands of coastal businesses, is opposed to opening their coasts to new offshore drilling,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director for the group Oceana, told ThinkProgress. “This issue is overwhelmingly bipartisan and it’s time for the Trump administration to stand with coastal communities to protect their livelihoods and marine environments.”