New Offshore Drilling Legislation Is Big Oil’s Dream Come True

A brown pelican sits on the beach at East Grand Terre Island, Louisiana, after being drenched in oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, June 2010.

While the ongoing controversies surrounding Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s questionable travel expenditures fill column inches of news outlets, the Trump administration and congressional Republicans are working overtime to radically expand their “drill, baby, drill” agenda.

Last week on October 5, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a budget with no Democratic support that included a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Now, as the budget fight moves to the Senate, GOP leaders in the House Committee on Natural Resources are turning their gaze to a prize that they have long coveted: overriding environmental laws and the concerns of many coastal states to extend offshore drilling to any area of U.S. waters that could possibly hold economically recoverable petroleum.

On October 11, the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to discuss the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore (ASTRO) Act, a bill that amalgamates a myriad of atrocious ideas aimed at opening the floodgates—or better yet, the spillways—to oil extraction throughout America’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Such action would expose valuable fishing and tourism industries to the major risk that comes with offshore fossil fuel production. According to U.S. Department of the Interior statistics, between 2001 and 2015, there were 589 oil spills in federal waters. The reality of offshore fossil fuel production is that if you drill, you spill.

Yet the ASTRO act ignores the need to protect fishing and tourism jobs while instead checking off nearly every box on Big Oil’s wish list. Here’s an overview of the five worst aspects of the bill.

Eliminating due process and public oversight for offshore leasing

A 1978 set of amendments to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act laid the foundation for the offshore oil and gas development planning, leasing, and permitting system in place today, which requires the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to carry out reviews in five-year increments. As part of this five-year process, the agency goes through multiple drafts for a leasing program before a final plan is approved. The law requires that each stage include input and vetting from industry, the public, affected stakeholders, and elected officials from adjacent coastal states. This methodical approach gives affected communities a voice in decision-making about where to drill and identifies and protects environmentally and economically sensitive areas even as it provides extraordinary economic rewards to Big Oil. As of 2014, the industry held more than 2 million acres of federal offshore oil and gas leases. Moreover, these leases, according to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, have produced significantly more than a million barrels of oil per day since at least 2006, resulting in tens of billions of dollars in revenue.

Nevertheless, the ASTRO bill seeks to dispense entirely with the pragmatic and carefully designed balancing act inherent in the five-year planning process. It would allow the secretary of the interior to offer lease sales anywhere in federal waters at any time, essentially cutting out the public, ocean stakeholders, and state and local governments from having a say in where future drilling would occur. For cities, counties, and states that depend on clean and healthy oceans to support their coastal economies, this big government and corporate overreach would be a slap in the face. It would send the message that unless these stakeholders support more offshore drilling, their opinions and livelihoods are meaningless to Washington’s policymakers.

Buying off coastal states

When President Barack Obama implemented the most recent five-year drilling program, he considered the concerns of more than 120 coastal communities and 1,200 legislators from states along the Atlantic seaboard who fiercely resisted Big Oil’s desire to open the South Atlantic to drilling. This opposition was grounded in the understanding that opening the Atlantic to drilling would endanger existing sustainable industries such as recreation, tourism, and fishing, putting them at risk of major economic losses in the event of an offshore oil spill. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, these industries lost nearly $7 billion, resulting in job losses across the economy.

The ASTRO Act attempts to gain support from federal, state, and local politicians along the Atlantic coast and in Alaska by offering various inducements, including payments directly to “coastal political subdivisions” at the expense of all U.S. taxpayers who collectively own the United States’ offshore natural resources. The bill would also raise the cap on current revenue sharing in the Gulf of Mexico, costing the federal government more than $12 billion that it would otherwise earn from production in that region alone. In other words, the act attempts to buy support from coastal communities by asking them to take the chance that oil won’t soil shorelines and decimate fish populations the way BP’s blowout devastated the Gulf Coast in 2010. It’s a bad bet, since accidents will happen, and it overlooks the federal taxpayers who would get the short shrift.

Restoring conflict of interest at the Department of the Interior

In 1982, then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt, an avowed champion of extractive industry,  announced the creation of a new agency, the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which he designed to implement his goal of leasing 1 billion acres of federal waters for offshore drilling. To expedite this onslaught, the MMS brought together several previously dispersed functions of the Interior Department’s oversight of OCS development. Those functions included planning and leasing, safety and environmental enforcement, and collection of revenue from industry in exchange for the privilege of developing taxpayer-owned natural resources.

The conflict of interest intrinsic to the MMS was a mix that proved toxic. By the time of BP’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in 2010, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General had filed numerous reports that revealed a pervasive culture of corruption. MMS officials—particularly those in inspection and revenue collection offices—were found to regularly take valuable gifts—such as vacations, ski trips, and sports tickets—from the oil industry and even engaged in salacious, drug-fueled parties with industry representatives.

Following BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, President Obama designated a bipartisan commission to review offshore drilling policy and make recommendations aimed at ensuring such an incident would not happen again. One of the commission’s bedrock recommendations was the establishment of an offshore drilling safety oversight agency distinct from the ones responsible for awarding leases and collecting royalties and other revenues. Acting on this suggestion, President Obama and then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar oversaw the breakup of the MMS into three independent agencies, free to pursue their respective mandates without internal interference or conflict of interest.

In June 2017, reports emerged that the Trump administration was considering undoing this decision. The ASTRO Act would effectively revive this conflict of interest at the Department of the Interior. Section 7 of the bill requires the Interior Department to “study” the current offshore agency structure and consider reforming the Minerals Management Service as a way to “streamline” offshore oil and gas extraction.

Putting Alaska’s natural and cultural heritage at risk

While the BP disaster was easily the largest oil debacle of the decade, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Big Oil has a terrible track record when it comes to offshore oil production in the stormy, ice-choked, and unpredictable waters off northern Alaska. In the summer of 2012, while drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, Royal Dutch Shell proved correct the Deepwater Horizon commission’s conclusions on the need for Arctic-specific drilling safety regulations. Despite $6 billion in preparations, the extreme conditions of the Arctic Ocean defeated Shell at every turn, resulting in destroyed well-containment equipment, disastrous vessel groundings, and $12.2 million in federal fines for safety and pollution control violations. In the spring of 2017, the rupture of a gas pipeline in the Cook Inlet owned by Hilcorp Energy Co., the inlet’s largest gas and oil producer, had to be left to spew natural gas for weeks because the waters were too dangerous to mount a response.

As a result of the Deepwater Horizon commission’s recommendations and the lessons learned from Shell’s misadventures, the Department of the Interior under President Obama worked with industry, Alaska Native tribes, scientists, and the public to develop and promulgate a new suite of Arctic-specific drilling safeguards in 2016. But the ASTRO Act’s sponsors included a provision in the bill to completely repeal these commonsense protections, reinforcing what appears to be the sponsors’ goal of maximizing profit for the oil industry—irrespective of the risks and costs to native communities and the Arctic environment.

Blocking protection for whales, sharks, coral reefs, and other marine life

Finally, not content with being able to drill every square inch of ocean free from commonsense safety regulations, the ASTRO Act would also explicitly prevent future presidents from designating marine national monuments using the authority currently granted to them by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama used the act to protect some of the most spectacular and fragile ocean ecosystems anywhere on the planet, designating sites in the remote Pacific Ocean and an area encompassing underwater mountains and canyons about 150 miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. These actions safeguarded critical habitats for endangered and threatened whales and other marine mammals, sharks, fish, and corals.

Furthermore, the act would void all previous presidential actions to withdraw areas of the OCS, outside of National Marine Sanctuaries and Monuments, from future consideration for inclusion in offshore leasing plans. This would remove critical protections for areas set aside as far back as 1960, when President Dwight Eisenhower withdrew areas of the Key Largo coral reef preserve.

In addition to exposing some of America’s most cherished and productive ocean ecosystems to permanent and irreversible damage, these provisions represent an extension of the crusade House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) has waged against what he calls the “damn Antiquities Act” in recent years. America’s ocean territory deserves access to the same set of tools for safeguarding scientific, historic, and environmental wonders that is available to treasured sites on land. Just because the seabed is covered with water doesn’t make it any less worthy of conservation for future generations.

Conclusion

Americans from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Santa Barbara to the north slope of Alaska have seen what happens when the federal government neglects oversight of the offshore oil and gas industry. The results range from environmental and economic destruction to rank corruption and lost lives. The current effort to roll back protections and open up all of our nation’s maritime territory to one special interest—the production of dirty fossil fuels—will come at the expense of fishermen and countless other coastal business owners who rely on clean, healthy oceans and coasts for their livelihoods.

Michael Conathan is the director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. Shiva Polefka is the associate director of Ocean Policy at the Center.