Republican bill would limit environmental reviews of offshore drilling

A Chevron production platform and Transocean's Discoverer Deep Seas drillship are working on the Tahiti field, below 28,000 feet of water and earth in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. (Simone Sebastian/Houston Chronicle)

A Chevron production platform and Transocean’s Discoverer Deep Seas drillship are working on the Tahiti field. (Simone Sebastian/Houston Chronicle)

The federal government would be forced to make decisions on offshore drilling before fully scrutinizing how the work would affect coral and other ocean life under legislation advancing in the House, conservationists and a marine biologist warned Congress on Tuesday.

At issue is legislation by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that aims to expand offshore drilling by forcing the Obama administration to sell new oil and gas leases off the coasts of Virginia, South Carolina and California. The bill also would limit the Interior Department to conducting a single environmental impact study of the lease sales near those three states — rather than two or three assessments focused on the specific areas.

That would upend the Interior Department’s current practice under the National Environmental Policy Act, which generally is to conduct area-specific studies, with separate analyses for the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic waters near Alaska.

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Combining an assessment of Pacific waters with mid-Atlantic ones could lead to a broad-brush review that paints over geological differences between the regions, warned Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for the group Oceana.

“The National Environmental Policy Act is designed to foster good decision-making” by forcing the government to scrutinize the impacts of potential policies, LeVine said. “The broader the scope (and) the larger the area analyzed, the more difficult it is to get at the proper level of information to guide a good decision.”

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a former member of the presidential commission that investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster, stressed the different marine life and habitat along the western and eastern coasts.

“You really have to take into account the different ecological questions” in assessing the areas, he said during a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing on the bill.

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The full panel is set to vote Wednesday on Hastings’ bill and a suite of other measures that aim to expand domestic oil and gas development on federal lands and waters.

A hearing on the measure last week featured mostly supportive witnesses, including representatives from the American Petroleum Institute and Chamber of Commerce. Congressional Democrats used committee rules to force Tuesday’s second hearing session, which featured testimony from the bill’s critics.

Hastings, calls his legislation a “pro-energy, pro-jobs plan that will strengthen our economy and increase our energy security by responsibly and safely harnessing our vast offshore energy resources.”

In addition to forcing new offshore lease sales and limiting environmental reviews, the measure would codify a reorganization of the federal agencies that oversee offshore drilling, which was handled administratively after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. And it would expand the amount of revenue that coastal state collect for energy development close to their shores, giving them up to 37.5 percent of the royalties collected by the federal government. A similar proposal is being pushed in the Senate by Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

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Taxpayers for Common Sense took aim at the revenue sharing proposal. Ryan Alexander, the group’s president, said it would unfairly steer revenue tied to development on federal waters — and overseen by the federal government — to coastal states who don’t control the activity. The federal waters belong to all Americans — not just those in states with beach views, she said.

“The cost and benefits should be carried out by all Americans, not a handful of coastal states,” Alexander said.

Revenue sharing supporters insist that states bear financial costs and environmental risks from offshore energy development, so they deserve a slice of the revenue too.
At a Senate hearing last week, Landrieu insisted that royalties for Gulf of Mexico drilling is being used for restoration efforts across the U.S. — and not for the protection of eroding coastline and marshes in Louisiana and Texas.

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