Offshore rig
Draft legislation debated at a congressional hearing last week would affect the U.S. outer continental shelf, easing restraints on oil and gas development there. Credit: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Department of the Interior

Congress set its sights last week on legislation to loosen restrictions on oil and gas development in the U.S. outer continental shelf (OCS), a move that Republicans and industry representatives at an 11 October hearing said would help meet continued demand for fossil fuels, bolster national security, and fill federal and state coffers with a share of resulting oil and gas revenues.

However, Democrats and conservation groups excoriated the legislation and the Trump administration for moving forward with development at the cost of ocean and coastal safeguards.

An Effort to Limit Development Moratoriums

The proposed legislation, the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act, also known as the ASTRO act, would limit the authority of the president to withdraw areas of the OCS from oil and gas leasing and instead require an act of Congress to establish new offshore drilling moratoriums and to create marine national monuments. The bill would also rescind previous drilling moratoriums other than for established national marine sanctuaries and monuments and allow the secretary of the interior to conduct lease sales in any OCS planning area “as soon as practicable.”

“The previous administration took incredible liberties when it came to locking up OCS lands from offshore oil and gas exploration and development,” said subcommittee chair Rep. Paul Gosar.

The bill, currently in draft form, would also nullify regulations the Obama administration put in place in July 2016 for exploratory drilling and related operations on the OCS within the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea Planning Areas off the coast of Alaska; establish oil and gas revenue sharing with the coastal states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alaska; and identify methods to streamline the oil and gas leasing and permitting process.

The legislation is in large measure a reaction to the Obama administration’s efforts to remove marine areas from development, Republicans said at the hearing. “The previous administration took incredible liberties when it came to locking up OCS lands from offshore oil and gas exploration and development, and this bill attempts to restore access and provide a more practical and functional path to development for all stakeholders,” Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, said at the hearing. The hearing memo notes that 94% of the OCS is excluded from oil and gas leasing under the 2017–2022 offshore oil and gas leasing plan.

Big Government Overreach?

The draft bill would overturn a nearly 40-year-old process in which stakeholders including industry, state and local governments, and the public have provided input to 5-year reviews to identify where lease sales can occur, said subcommittee member Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.). “Yet this bill proposes that we change that pragmatic and balanced process and allow the secretary of the interior the power to offer lease sales whenever and wherever he wants. Now, stakeholders would no longer have a say in where future drilling would occur. Their opinions would be meaningless,” Brown said. “This sounds like big government overreach that the [Republican] majority often decries.”

“Every coastal area would be perpetually at risk” if the bill were to become law, said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee.

“Every coastal area would be perpetually at risk” if the bill were to become law, said Rep. Alan Lowenthal, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. Lowenthal also castigated Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. “Under this legislation, we would be dependent on a single-minded secretary with a questionable handle on the facts to determine if there should be more offshore drilling off our coast. And then, to protect our beaches, our fishes, and our entire coastal economies, we would be dependent on a regulatory system that he wants to take backwards,” he said.

In response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama administration took measures to bolster offshore oil and gas oversight, including reorganizing the Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which oversaw offshore drilling, into three independent entities and issuing new well control regulations. Speaking against the ASTRO act at last week’s hearing, Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) said the legislation “will take us back to the days before the Deepwater Horizon spill, our nation’s single worst environmental disaster.”

In a 10 October letter opposing the bill, a coalition of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Oceana, said the legislation “is an extreme approach to the management of our offshore resources, eliminates or modifies common-sense management tools, and puts at risk our natural environment, coastal communities and economies.”

One witness at the hearing, South Carolina state senator Stephen Goldfinch, a Republican who favors the legislation and whose district includes three coastal counties, testified that his constituents are about evenly split in their support for offshore oil and gas development. “But I don’t know one person in my district that wouldn’t support the idea of revenue sharing,” he said. That cost-sharing formula would be similar to the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006 that set a revenue distribution formula for four Gulf states.

However, the environmental groups have a different perspective on the revenue-sharing aspects of the bill, stating that they “create perverse incentives to drill in sensitive areas.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Proposed bill would loosen ocean drilling restrictions, Eos, 98, Published on 17 October 2017.

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