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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Drilling Beneath the Seas

Air Date: Week of

Offshore drilling supplies about 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas production. (Courtesy of Department of the Interior)

The Republican-controlled Congress has a few more weeks before they hand over control to Democrats. One item high on the agenda is a proposal to expand offshore oil drilling. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Capitol Hill.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Time’s running out for Congressional Republicans. But before they give up the reins of power in Congress, the lame duck lawmakers want to pass a controversial piece of legislation. It would open up offshore drilling to oil and gas companies. And as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us, support for the proposal is coming from an unsual source—some environmental groups.

YOUNG: For 25 years most of the outer continental shelf has been off limits for offshore drilling. Federal moratoria ban new oil and gas exploration from nearly all US coasts, except in the western Gulf of Mexico. New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, who heads the Senate’s energy committee, says it’s time for that to end.

DOMENICI: And the American people should know that the outer continental shelf, which belongs to them, contains invaluable resources for their future to go and drill for.

YOUNG: Both the House and senate passed bills to expand offshore drilling. The expansive House bill would have ended all federal moratoria on drilling in favor of letting states decide. That measure appears to be dead. But Domenici and other drilling supporters hope something close to the Senate’s version might still pass in the final weeks of the 109th Congress. That bill would give oil and gas companies access to about 8 million acres deep in the central Gulf of Mexico.

Offshore drilling supplies about 25 percent of the nation’s natural gas production.(Courtesy of Department of the Interior)

DOMENICI: One of the most energy laden pieces of outer continental shelf real estate. It has been sitting there under moratoria— meaning moribund, dead, because we were frightened of ourselves.

YOUNG: Domenici says the area is rich in natural gas and could yield more than a billion barrels of oil. His supporters say drilling technology has come a long way since oil spills in the late 60’s turned the tide of public opinion against offshore drilling. But environmentalists argue that even though oil platforms are safer, pipelines and tankers are still risky. Mike Gravitz of the US Public Interest Research Group says ending the moratorium in this spot could lead to more drills, and the risk of more spills, elsewhere.

GRAVITZ: I think that would set a bad precedent. And after all the solution to our energy problems, whether you want to call it energy security or independence, really does not lie at the end of a drill bit. It really lies in our own behavior and the kind of investments we make in this country over the next 20 years.

Forty-three wells exist off of the coast of California alone. (Courtesy of Department of Energy)

YOUNG: National environmental groups are lobbying hard to keep the lame duck Congress out of the drilling business. But that puts them at odds with conservation groups on the Gulf Coast. There, the top priority is restoring the badly eroded wetlands and barrier islands. Mark Davis is executive director of the coalition to restore coastal Louisiana.

DAVIS: Coastal Louisiana is essentially disintegrating in large part because of the way it’s been managed over the past several generations unless we actually re-plumb the Mississippi River and the coastal landscape it will continue to disappear.

YOUNG: That will take money—lots of it. And offshore drilling bills would pump lots of money into Louisiana. Drilling supporters included something called revenue sharing. About a third of the money raised by lease sales and royalties would not go to the federal treasury but instead to the states that have drilling off their coasts. Louisiana has pledged to use that money to patch up its battered coast. Davis notes the irony here. It was the oil and gas industry that caused much of the damage with canals and pipelines that cut up the marsh. Now he hopes drilling revenue could help fix things.

DAVIS: If these dollars are gonna be generated, shouldn’t some of them go to dealing with the environmental costs that were incurred to create those dollars and produce that energy.

YOUNG: The idea of diverting federal dollars to the states is controversial on Capitol Hill. Some worry that other states will demand a piece of the pie, draining one of the biggest sources of federal revenue. But revenue sharing took on a new sense of urgency in the wake of hurricane Katrina.


Offshore drilling rigs can stand and operate in water that is up to two miles deep.(Courtesy of Department of the Interior)

YOUNG: A group of women from Louisiana marched on Capitol Hill under matching umbrellas bearing the slogan, "women of the storm." They’ve lost homes and businesses and now they’re storming Washington. Spokesperson Anne Milling says they want congress to pass a drilling bill that shares oil wealth with her state.

MILLING: We urge you to protect and restore America’s wetlands through the creation of a continuous funding stream now, before it’s too late. Thank you.


YOUNG: It’s a ticklish spot for national environmental groups. Mike Gravitz of the
Public Interest Research Group wants to help the Gulf coast rebuild but he does not want more oil rigs in gulf waters.

GRAVITZ: I can really understand why environmental groups in the gulf are really hungry for this kind of revenue to begin doing additional work on wetlands restoration. And all I would say is there are lots of other sources, alternative sources of financing, for that restoration.

YOUNG: Gravitz hopes that argument holds through mid-December, when the Republican-controlled lame duck Congress will end. Once Democrats take control, the chances for more offshore drilling will probably dry up.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Naturalgas.org on Offshore Drilling

The group America's Wetland supports a drilling bill with revenue sharing to

US Public Interest Research Group opposes offshore drilling


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