The same week that brought the dual anniversaries of Earth Day and the Deepwater Horizon disaster brought another not-so-surprising convergence: Almost simultaneous moves in Congress to block oil and gas development in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., both Democrats from New Jersey, introduced bills on April 21 to amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to bar drilling in the Department of Interior’s mid-Atlantic, North Atlantic, and South Atlantic planning areas.
The closest offshore lease to New Jersey is about 100 miles off Virginia. The Obama administration cancelled a planned 2010 sale as part of its response to Deepwater Horizon. It’s very much on the table now, and seismic surveys could begin later this year.
Engineers with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management say it’s most likely that natural gas would be the bigger resource if the area is developed. But that prospect still alarms New Jersey political and business leaders with fears of potential oil spills. For them, beach resorts are a huge part of the state’s nearly $40 billion tourist economy. There are still strong memories of the summer of 1987, when beach tourism was on the ropes from weeks of trash wash-ups.
In the 1970s and ‘80s they beat back early moves for offshore exploration, as Americans’ energy anxiety eased after the 1970s Arab oil embargoes. That was the beginning of the era from 1982 to 2008, when Congress regularly inserted a moratorium on exploring most of the Outer Continental Shelf in its annual appropriations. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton reinforced the ban through executive order.
That ended in 2008 when President George W. Bush rescinded the presidential orders and warned Congress he would veto any measure extending the moratorium.
On the same day the Atlantic bills came out, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., put forward a House bill to impose a moratorium on drilling off the West Coast, a move Capp said is aimed specifically at offshore hydraulic fracturing.
The Department of Interior needs to study undersea hydraulic fracturing before permitting the technology, Capps said. “While we still know very little about the impacts of onshore fracking, we know even less about impacts of offshore fracking,” Capps said in introducing the bill.
Capps, who has backed an overall ban on offshore oil and gas in every session of Congress since 2006, reintroduced that measure as well.
There’s little sign yet this will escalate to major political struggle. Almost from its inception the Obama administration has been clear in its intent to develop more offshore energy, before Deepwater Horizon derailed the timetable.
And with lots of affordable natural gas supply from fracturing, it’s unlikely we’ll see anyone revive the 1980s slogan usually attributed to the late Calgary mayor Ralph Klein, when Alberta and the Canadian national government quarreled over energy policy: “Let the Eastern bastards freeze to death in the dark.”