License to Drill

The consequences of the offshore drilling bill. By Carmen Johnson

At 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning in early December members of the U.S. Senate were itching to end Congress’s 109th session and head home. But before they left, the senators approved a $45 billion tax package that included a measure to open 8.3 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas production. While the offshore drilling bill was far more limited than the legislation the House passed in June, the idea was the still the same: To relieve America’s dependence on oil, America needs to generate more oil. 

“We are disappointed that Congress is finding it so difficult to cut ties to the oil and gas industry and think outside the drilling rig when it comes to America’s energy policies,” said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a statement.

Environmental groups oppose the offshore drilling bill, which President Bush signed into law, and argue for more spending on alternative energy resources. Environmentalists also warn that the oil rigs will inevitably contaminate the water with toxins and pose the risk of oil spills.

But blocking oil production 125 miles south of Florida is a tricky position to argue, especially when a chunk of the revenue will fund coastal reconstruction efforts in the states devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana will share 37.5 percent of the royalties generated by new oil and gas leases.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who co-authored the approved bill with former Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM), expects Louisiana will receive at least $13 billion over the next 30 years and provide the bulk of the coastline reconstruction efforts.

“The bill President Bush signed is good for the country because it reduces our dependence on foreign energy sources and protects the energy infrastructure along the Gulf Coast,” said Landrieu in a statement. “It is good for Louisiana because the revenue stream will be used to protect our state from deadly storm surges and the unprecedented flooding we experienced after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

Jim Presswood of the National Resources Defense Council agrees that the coast needs funding for major reconstruction, but he believes that pouring money into oil drilling in the ocean only creates problems elsewhere.

“We need to find a solution that isn’t at the expense of other coastal areas,” says Presswood, who acknowledged that the bill could have been worse.

The offshore drilling bill is more restrictive than the legislation former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo introduced last summer. Pombo was pushing to open nearly all U.S. coastal waters in the Atlantic and Pacific. The law also creates a “buffer zone” more than 100 miles off shore in other Florida waters that remains untouchable until at least 2022.

“(Voting for the bill) was a bad way to end the year,” says Presswood. But he says he is optimistic for the new year. “The offshore drilling bill is a law now but at least with a new climate in Washington, there will be more attention to clean alternative energy sources.

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