Breaking the Offshore Drilling Moratorium Through Understanding Its Origins

Breaking the Offshore Drilling Moratorium Through Understanding Its Origins

Frank Manheim believes that understanding the origin of conflict between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry could help break the political stalemate over offshore drilling.

Manheim, a retired geochemist and part-time instructor at George Mason University, says that Virginia, because of the General Assembly’s support for offshore drilling, could be the wedge to help break a federal offshore moratorium.

Virginia manufacturers who use natural gas as a fuel and raw material have pushed for drilling off the coast, as have utilities that seek alternative gas supplies to serve their customers. Environmental, fishing and tourism groups have opposed drilling, saying it threatens fragile ecosystems and natural beauty.

It is the classic, intractable standoff that Manheim believes is rooted in a history of conflict. Old arguments, he says, are less significant today because of technological advancements in oil and gas production and must be overcome for the country’s sake.

“We have built an apartheid between the scientific [environmental] establishment and the industrial establishment,” he says. “Every barrel of oil we import . . . deprives us of money needed to put into advanced energy research.”

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are debating how much to ease a 25-year-old ban on new offshore energy exploration.

The House wants to open everything and let the states decide whether they want drilling within 100 miles of their shorelines in return for a share of potential royalties. The Senate would open 8.3 million currently closed acres in the Gulf of Mexico to exploration.

Observers doubt lawmakers will come to an agreement before the November election.

At issue is the outer continental shelf, which includes all waters from 3 miles to 200 miles off U.S. coasts, encompassing 1.76 billion acres. About a third of those acres have been placed off limits by act of Congress and presidential order.

The drilling ban includes the entire offshore Atlantic, where the Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service estimates there may be enough natural gas to supply all the nation’s needs for 20 months and its crude-oil demand for half a year.

That may not sound like much, but supporters of more drilling say every little bit would help the nation maintain energy security, and reserves would not be known until exploration takes place.

Manheim spent much of a 35-year career with the U.S. Geological Survey working on offshore natural-resource development and environmental matters. Recently he has been writing about the conflict between environmentalists and the U.S. oil and gas industry.

Like many others, he considers the notorious Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill of January 1969 to be a watershed event. Closely following the spill, which fouled beaches and wildlife, came a host of new environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, that changed the way industry was regulated in America.

Before Santa Barbara, Congress would create an agency, give it broad mandates to resolve competing interests and plan for the future and step aside, Manheim says. The new laws were written to rein in the power of agencies, and citizens were given a way to challenge their decisions.

Agencies saw problem-solving and innovation curtailed, and disputes ended up in the political arena and the courts, Manheim says. Then-President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of the undiplomatic James Watt to secretary of the Interior in 1981 increased opposition to offshore drilling and hardened the polarization between environmental groups and the oil industry, he said.

“We’re certainly in favor of a balanced energy policy for the country,” said Annie Strickler a national spokeswoman for the Sierra Club. Her group is willing to compromise and has supported legislation that would have opened up pockets of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling without opening up all offshore areas, she said.

At the same time, Strickler said that offshore drilling will not solve all the country’s energy needs. Additional drilling, she said, would only serve to feed the nation’s oil addiction while diverting attention from the need for conservation, renewable energy and diversity of energy sources.

Noah Sachs, director of the Robert R. Merhige Jr. Center for Environmental Law at the University of Richmond, says it was not just the Santa Barbara spill but other events, such as a fire in June 1969 on Ohio’s heavily polluted Cuyahoga River, that helped spur a flood of anti-pollution laws.

Congress took a legalistic approach to environmental law and regulation, and the law has always been contentious, Sachs said. The biggest tool a citizen can employ when fighting an environmental decision is a lawsuit, he said.

“In the U.S., we’ve got an open process where the public is active and involved,” Sachs said. “It’s hard to discuss any environmental issues without having a public controversy.”

A long-standing public consensus against additional offshore drilling began to unravel in the past couple of years because of high gasoline prices and higher prices for natural-gas for home heating, power plants and factories, Sachs said.

Helping increase the political pressure to open closed offshore areas, he suggested, were the environmentalists’ success in keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska closed to drilling and Congress’ need for revenues to offset budget deficits.

Whether public involvement in environmental decisions is good or bad depends on your perspective, said Carl Tobias, another University of Richmond law professor. The law, he said, tries to strike a balance between the interest groups on both sides.

“It would be nice if experts could resolve these issues free of any political concerns,” Tobias said. “[But] just because you understand the science doesn’t make you make the right policy judgment.”

Manheim, though, believes too much public involvement has prevented exploration. The decision-making process doesn’t allow for consideration of anything but the environment, he says.

The conflict also has brought out the worst in the oil industry, Manheim said. Industry leaders have turned inward and declined engage in debate with environmentalists, he said.

The Minerals Management Service’s latest estimate is that 430 million-to-2.96 billion barrels of oil and 5.4 trillion-to-27.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas could lie off the mid-Atlantic coast from the Delaware-New Jersey state line to the North Carolina-South Carolina state line.

Earlier this year, Michael J. Schewel, former Gov. Mark Warner’s secretary of commerce and trade, released a report that concluded natural-gas exploration could be done safely off Virginia’s coast.

However, Schewel said drilling would take years to yield any results and should be undertaken only as part of a comprehensive plan to meet the state’s energy needs. Such a plan, as a first step, would include the more efficient use of existing energy sources.

The Minerals Management Service has proposed including 6.1 million acres of Virginia’s offshore in its next five-year oil-and-gas leasing plan, which would run from 2007 through 2012. Before that could happen, though, the congressional and presidential moratoriums on Atlantic drilling (at least off Virginia) would have to be lifted.

This year’s General Assembly, with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s concurrence, passed a bill endorsing the agency’s efforts to assess the energy potential of offshore Virginia.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

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