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House takes aim at Trump’s drilling plan with three bills

Bills would block offshore exploration in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Pacific and Atlantic coasts

A surfer rides a wave at the Huntington Beach pier with an oil rig and Catalina Island in the background in Huntington Beach, CA in 2018 (Photo by Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
A surfer rides a wave at the Huntington Beach pier with an oil rig and Catalina Island in the background in Huntington Beach, CA in 2018 (Photo by Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Lawmakers from both parties evoked the memory of the 2010 BP oil spill Tuesday to drum up support for a trio of House bills that would hamper offshore drilling and President Donald Trump’s energy agenda. 

The House is expected to vote Wednesday and Thursday on three bipartisan bills that would block exploration in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

[Offshore drilling ban proposed by bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers]

One of the bills, by Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Florida, would permanently ban oil and gas leasing in eastern areas of the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. The measure would amend and make permanent a provision in a 2006 law that placed a moratorium on drilling there that is set to expire in June 2022.

Lawmakers will also vote on legislation by Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-South Carolina, that would permanently ban oil and gas leasing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

The Trump administration has proposed adding those areas to its offshore leasing plan as it seeks to expand the country’s energy production. Those plans have met with resistance from coastal lawmakers and governors from both parties who fear the damage drilling activity could have on their tourism and seafood industries, as well as marine life. The administration has put its plan on hold, but lawmakers aren’t taking chances.

The mere specter of oily beaches can lead to hundreds of hotel cancellations, the lawmakers contend.

“Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Florida lost tourist visits despite the fact that there was no oil … there and no impact,” Rooney said on the House floor during debate on the rules for the three bills. “The perception becomes reality in a competitive tourist industry.”

The House voted 231-196 to adopt the rule that sets the terms of debate on the bills.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 people and for almost 90 days gushed a total of 4 million barrels  of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing marine life, and hurting the seafood industry and tourism there and beyond.

“For those of you who have worked with me over the years, you know that I have said and I mean that I will be the last person standing before offshore oil drilling is expanded off the coast of Florida,” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Florida, said on the House floor Tuesday. “I’m a Floridian and I have seen substantial changes in my state and I have seen that coastline on either side threatened by a variety of issues that man should not be undertaking.”

The Eastern Gulf is also the site of the Gulf Test Range, a key training ground for the military and testing area for weapons systems, which the Pentagon has warned would be disrupted by drilling activity.

“This is an unimpeded training and testing area and is crucial to national security, and cannot be carried out anywhere else in the United States and perhaps the world,” Rooney said.

“Beyond protecting coastal ecosystems, these bills help ensure military readiness given the long history of military training and activities, particularly in the Gulf,” Rep. Donna E. Shalala, D-Florida, said.

Deep opposition

Last year, Florida residents voted to pass a constitutional amendment banning offshore oil and gas drilling in the state’s waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

“Simply stated, we don’t want offshore drilling,” Shalala said. “Instead, we should be investing our time and resources in renewable clean energy that we know creates jobs and sets us on a course to combat climate change.”

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

Republican and Democratic governors of coastal states have also opposed proposals to include parts of the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in the administration’s offshore leasing plans.

The House will also vote later this week on a bill by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, that would prevent the administration from opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling.

That bill’s main cosponsor is Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, the only Republican among more than 180 backers.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was off-limits for oil and gas exploration until the Republicans included a provision in their 2017 tax overhaul to raise revenue from selling drilling licenses to offset the massive tax cuts in the legislation.

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed hard for the provision to be included in the tax law, drawing the ire of environmental groups and Democrats, who warn drilling activity risks harming the ecologically-sensitive reserve and its diverse wildlife.

Huffman’s bill would repeal the section of the law that allowed for drilling activity in the refuge.

House Democrats have also included a provision in the fiscal 2020 Interior-Environment spending bill that would deprive the administration of money to open the region for exploration. Also in House spending bills are provisions that would deprive the administration of funds to carry out its plan for expanded drilling activity off the coasts of the Atlantic and parts of the Pacific.

Opponents of the three bills accused the backers of trying to hamstring U.S. energy potential, kill jobs and compromise national security.

“The United States cannot reach or sustain our potential without large-scale access to developing our energy resources, but today, we are debating three bills that put American energy, American quality of life and American national security at risk,” Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Arizona. “This majority wants to pass sweeping bans on harnessing domestic energy resources.”

Republicans who support Trump’s energy goals argued on Tuesday that the bills would cede U.S. global energy leadership to its competitors and adversaries such as Russia.

“The idea here is that we’re going to carry out policies that stop energy production in the United States for the purpose of protecting the environment; sounds like a laudable goal,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana.

The bills, however, he said, would instead increase energy imports and allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to have greater geopolitical influence than the U.S.

“The policies that these bills are advancing . . . this is a gift for Vladimir Putin,” Graves said.

Lesko, who led Republican debate on the bills, predicted the measures “will die in the Senate,” where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, is unlikely to bring up any legislation to prevent fossil fuel development.

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