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Offshore drilling may be oily albatross for Trump’s pick to head Interior

Bernhardt’s nomination may face opposition in the Senate from coastal Republicans wary of oil spills

A worker arrives at the Department of Interior on January 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
A worker arrives at the Department of Interior on January 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the Interior Department, former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt, will almost certainly be advanced by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which holds his confirmation hearing Thursday morning.

However, just days after the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Bernhardt’s nomination may face opposition in the Senate from coastal Republicans wary of similar disasters playing out in their states.

Several Republicans are scrutinizing the Trump administration’s proposal released last year to open up almost all of the nation’s coasts to offshore drilling. Such a push could mark a stark shift in tone from a party that years ago saw oil rigs in the ocean as a viable pathway to American energy independence.

Four Republican senators from coastal states are running for reelection in 2020: Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia. Others such as Rick Scott of Florida could also face pressure to oppose the Bernhardt nomination over the plan.

If all Democrats and independents vote against Bernhardt, four Republican “no” votes would kill the nomination. And even if some of these Republicans vote to confirm him, they may seek assurances on the proposal, including exempting their individual states’ waters from drilling or leasing.

Scott ran for his Senate seat last year opposing the proposal to allow drilling off Florida’s coasts. Asked how the offshore proposal would factor into his vote on the Bernhardt nomination, Scott said, “It’s something that is very important to me.”

“It’s very important to me that we don’t have drilling off the coast of Florida,” he said, noting former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke committed to him the department would exempt his state when he was governor. Zinke resigned in December amid corruption allegations and Bernhardt has since served as acting secretary.

Four years ago Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., urged the Obama administration to allow oil and gas lease sales off the coasts of his state. At the time the Republican governor of Georgia supported the idea; the newly-elected Republican, Brian Kemp, has taken a different tack.

Asked how he feels now about opening the state’s coast to oil companies, Isakson is more skeptical.

“You want to make sure you don’t mess with tourism, you want to make sure your water quality is good, you don’t want to have oil spills,” Isakson told CQ. “I would go through the due diligence.”

Collins said she is undecided on the Bernhardt nomination. She is opposed to drilling off the coast of Maine and is urging the administration not to let companies drill in those waters.

A tricky vote

“I’m confident that no matter who’s in that position, that we can prevent that from occurring,” Collins said.

Tillis is also undecided on the Bernhardt nomination. He said he supports efforts to conduct seismic testing to see what potential there is for energy extraction and to discover “any sort of environmental concern” involved with opening up North Carolina’s shores. He said he and the administration are “in the same place.”

“I’m for doing the homework, for knowing whether we can do it in a sustainable way that the people in North Carolina can support,” Tillis said.

Graham’s and Perdue’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Under federal law Interior must release three drafts before finalizing a five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program. Last January, Interior released its first draft, which would open essentially all U.S. coastal waters for sale to fossil fuel companies, in some places as early as 2020.

Several southern Republican lawmakers, afraid of spills and drilling affecting their local economies, criticized the draft.

After the Commerce Department authorized five companies to start testing the Atlantic for energy potential, the Republican attorney general of South Carolina, Alan Wilson, and several coastal communities in the state sued the federal government, arguing the process alone could irrevocably harm tourism on the state’s coast.

The comment period for the proposal ended before the summer of 2018. Three weeks ago a top Interior official told lawmakers at a House subcommittee hearing the next draft “may come out in the coming weeks.” However, the Interior Department has declined to provide updates on the timing of the plan’s release.

‘Living is risky’

Not every Senate Republican is worried about offshore drilling. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., demurred when asked how offshore drilling could overlap with his vote on the nomination of David Bernhardt to lead the Interior Department.

“I’m not sure,” Kennedy said in an interview. “That’s not something I want to comment on.”

Asked why he thinks his GOP colleagues are now skeptical of the process, he said he doesn’t “completely understand it.”

“I think this country could become energy independent if we opened up drilling offshore, eastern seaboard, western seaboard, open up further areas in the Gulf. There’s some risk, but I think the risk is minuscule.” Kennedy said. “There is no certainty in life. I mean living is risky.”

Senate Democrats are demanding the agency release the second draft before a final vote to confirm Bernhardt.

“The American people deserve to know your plan for the Outer Continental Shelf before the Senate votes on your nomination,” they wrote to Bernhardt in a letter last week.

Next week Democrats in the House plan to continue their public opposition to offshore drilling. The House Natural Resources Committee is scheduled on April 2 to hold a hearing on multiple bills that would all but ban offshore drilling in the U.S., including a measure from Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., that would permanently ban oil and gas lease sales in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said Bernhardt’s hearing “wasn’t the motivation” for holding a hearing on the offshore drilling measures but “the timing is now factored in.”

“He’s going to get asked those questions in confirmation, and the hearing is going to bring some voices to the table that haven’t been heard on this issue before,” Grijalva said. “And senators should think twice.”