Democrats at odds over Big Oil’s bid for East Coast drilling

A new poll shows 68 percent of Americans support offshore oil and gas drilling, but the issue is dividing Democrats in Congress. The Obama administration decided to allow seismic energy exploration off the Atlantic coast last week, suggesting offshore drilling may soon be a reality there.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana is an advocate for expanded offshore oil and gas drilling in the US. Last week, the Obama administration opened the Atlantic coast for seismic exploration for oil and gas.

The US energy industry has produced a lot of oil and gas on land and in the Gulf of Mexico. Now it’s hoping to do the same in the Atlantic Ocean.

A majority of Americans support offshore oil and gas production, according to an industry-backed poll released Wednesday. But a push to reopen portions of the Atlantic seaboard to drilling is raising serious environmental concerns, particularly among those who live in the coastal communities nearby.

As midterm elections approach, the debate over offshore drilling is drawing battle lines in Congress – even within the Democratic party. Moderate Democrats from energy-rich states tend to see drilling in the Atlantic as a boon for economic development, while others say the activity would devastate local landscapes and wildlife – critical resources for local economies that rely on tourism.

Last week, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced oil and gas companies could apply to perform seismic airgun testing in search of oil and gas deposits along the coastline from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Those exploratory findings could inform potential drilling, if the BOEM allows for Atlantic coast leasing in its 2017-2022 ocean energy exploration plan.

Environmentalists worry the seismic testing’s sonic blasts could harm marine life, while industry argues that oil and gas drilling would enhance US energy security and create thousands of jobs.

“In the Atlantic alone, the benefits [of offshore drilling] could equal 280,000 new American jobs and $51 billion in revenue for the government,” Erik Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute (API), a Washington-based industry group, said in a call with reporters Wednesday.

Sixty-eight percent of Americans support offshore oil and natural gas development, according to a Nielsen poll released Wednesday by API.

The issue is fractious among Congressional Democrats. In recent weeks, energy committee chair Senator Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana has been a vocal supporter of expanded offshore drilling. And in a statement Wednesday, Sen. Landrieu called seismic testing “an important first step” in knowing how much oil and gas lies beneath the ocean floor, adding that she “will continue to press BOEM and the administration to provide increased access for offshore energy development."

That position pits her against other Democrats, who – troubled by climate change and drilling’s implications for marine life – are less enthusiastic about offshore production.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey called BOEM’s decision to allow seismic testing “another handout for Big Oil.”

“Not only will the use of sonic cannons stress whales, turtles, and fish already under pressure from climate change, but this puts us one step closer to oil and gas drilling in this area,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island said in a statement last week, adding that the potential benefit of drilling “doesn’t seem worth putting our oceans and coasts at risk.”

For decades, the Atlantic coast had been off limits for energy companies. Then, in March 2010, the Obama administration briefly lifted a 30-year-old offshore drilling moratorium to attract conservative support for Obama-backed comprehensive climate legislation. The decision freed up portions of the Atlantic coast, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and northern Alaska for drilling. Obama backpedaled in December 2010, though, re-imposing the moratorium in the wake of the April BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, and when climate legislation failed to materialize.

Last week’s approval of seismic testing may be a first step toward again lifting the moratorium on drilling off the East Coast, with Republicans in Congress leading the charge. The House GOP approved a measure in late June that would expand offshore drilling in the Pacific and elsewhere, and Senate Energy Committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska has continually pushed for offshore drilling. Murkowski supports offshore drilling where local communities and states are on board, spokesman Robert Dillon says in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Environmental advocates say offshore drilling is less popular than API’s polling suggests. They argue that skepticism of offshore drilling is common in the coastal areas that would experience energy development’s discontents.

“We’ve had seventeen resolutions from coastal communities speaking out against oil and gas drilling,” says Sara Young, a marine scientist at the Washington-based environmental advocacy group Oceana. “The people who live in these communities are definitely opposed to it.”

Ms. Young said Oceana has put pressure on Congressional delegations in affected states, urging them to come out against seismic exploration and drilling.

“The Mid-Atlantic is just too environmentally sensitive for drilling,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland said in a statement following BOEM’s announcement last week. “I urge the Administration to reconsider its plans to allow this testing which will only serve to harm Maryland’s coastal communities and the natural resources which drive our economy.”

But environmental groups worry that the administration would not have approved seismic surveys – an expensive process – unless drilling were on the horizon.

“Companies wouldn’t undertake them if there weren’t some inkling that they would get get benefits from oil and gas production somewhere down the line,” Young says in a telephone interview Wednesday.

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