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House GOP Panel Votes to Expand Offshore Leasing Plan

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee last Wednesday voted out expanded offshore leasing legislation, which would nearly double the number of lease sales now proposed for the 2012-2017 period and opens up new areas -- the Mid-Atlantic and Southern California -- to exploration.

The Republican leasing plan, which was offered by Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA), cleared the committee by 24-17, with the vote breaking down along party lines. Democrats were unsuccessful in their attempts to water down the measure.

The legislation (H.R. 6082) calls for 28 lease sales to be held during the 2012-2017 period in eight Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) regions, including the Mid-Atlantic off Virginia's coast, Southern California, the Western Gulf of Mexico (GOM), the Central GOM, the portion of the Eastern GOM not under a congressional moratorium, and the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and North Aleutian Basin areas in Alaska (see NGI, July 16). The bill has received broad support from the oil and gas industry.

"President Obama likes to give speeches claiming support for expanding energy production," Hastings said, but the president's policies "don't match his rhetoric." The GOP bill will challenge the president to live up to his rhetoric, he noted.

By 16-26, Republicans defeated an amendment offered by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), a major opponent of offshore drilling, to strike five Mid-Atlantic lease sales that the GOP scheduled for 2012-2017. The GOP lawmakers voted down the amendment because -- in its attempt to protect the New Jersey coastline -- it also would have eliminated proposed leasing off the coast of Virginia, which the state and some lawmakers support.

The Republican leasing plan, which Hastings proposed as an alternative to the Obama administration's offshore leasing plan for 2012-2017, is a "gift to Big Oil," Pallone said. The oil and gas industry and its supporters have been highly critical of the Obama administration's offshore leasing plan in part because it takes off the table the Atlantic and Pacific areas of the OCS.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) was unsuccessful in his attempt to bar the export of natural gas produced on the OCS. "The least we should be able to say is we kept that natural gas here...So we did not have to import oil."

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) argued that Markey's amendment would duplicate existing law, which requires "the president [to] OK any exports of natural gas out of this country." But Markey believes the decision on exporting gas should rest with Congress, not the president.

"I want us [Congress] to decide that we're not going to export natural gas...This is a responsibility that we should shoulder," not the president. "That's the bottom line on this. I don't care if it's President Obama" or a Republican president, Markey said. He said he doubts the GOP leasing bill will clear Congress. While the House has passed several bills to open public lands to drilling, they have been "far too extreme to pass the Senate," and not a single one has been signed into law.

An amendment by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) to include a lease sale off the coast of South Carolina in the five-year plan passed on voice vote. "We want offshore drilling in South Carolina...We want it to happen in our backyard," he said. "Drilling equals job creation."

Before drilling can take place off the East Coast, Markey noted that seismic testing must be done to determine the resource potential that exists there. According to the Interior Department, existing seismic data on the resource potential of the Atlantic Coast is 30 years old.

"I don't have a lot of confidence in the federal government to conduct seismic," said Rep. Jeff Landry (R-LA). Markey noted that private companies would do the seismic testing, while the "federal government just checks the homework."

Rep. Rush Holt, another New Jersey Democrat who is opposed to offshore drilling, offered two amendments that would have required producers to meet stringent safety requirements in order to obtain leases; both were defeated.

Probably the most controversial amendment was proposed by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) to require oil and gas companies to disclose their campaign contributions for the previous five-year period in order to obtain leases. Republicans blocked the measure by 13-20.

"I was offended by the nature of the amendment" when it was offered previously, Hastings said. "I have not changed my mind."

Republicans contend that the Obama administration's five-year final leasing program, which was released in late June, takes the nation back to 2008, when two moratoriums were in place and places 85% of the U.S. offshore areas off limits to producers. Democrats counter that the administration's plan makes available 75% of the offshore oil and gas resources.

The Obama administration's final leasing program proposes 15 potential lease sales in six offshore areas. Twelve of the potential lease sales would be held in the Western and Central GOM and the portion of the Eastern GOM not currently under a congressional moratorium (see NGI, July 2). Three of the potential lease sales are scheduled for offshore Alaska in the Cook Inlet, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The program does not include any lease sales off the Atlantic or Pacific coats.

The Republican OCS plan proposes a lease sale off the coast of Virginia as early as 2013, to be followed by more Mid-Atlantic lease sales in 2014, 2015 and 2017. A lease sale off the coast of Southern California is scheduled for 2017. "The president's plan doesn't allow energy production off Virginia until 2017 or later," Hastings said.

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