A bird’s eye view of a natural gas ocean rig. (Photo: Spare the Air)
A moratorium on offshore drilling has kept most of the U.S. shoreline free from new oil rigs for more than two decades now. But some lawmakers are pushing to partially lift the ban and let states decide whether to drill in waters off their coasts. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In January of 1969, the eyes of America were riveted on the waters off Santa Barbara, California, where a blowout on an oil platform turned beautiful beaches into a nightmare of black sticky pollution and dead birds. Public outrage coalesced into a consensus that never again should oil and beach waters mix. Since then, state and federal bans on new offshore drilling have kept most of the U.S. shoreline free of drilling rigs. But, as the thirst for oil and gas continues to rise, along with prices, some lawmakers say states should have the right to decide whether to allow drilling in their coastal waters. And as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, a few states are moving in that direction.
YOUNG: The moratorium on offshore drilling is popular from coast to coast.
YOUNG: Surfer and activist Ari Lawrence has lived on both those coasts. His native California strongly supports the drilling ban. Now, Lawrence keeps an eye on his new home, Virginia Beach, which today is sadly lacking in surf.
LAWRENCE : There’s no waves today. This is the Atlantic lake right now.
YOUNG: It’s not the low waves that have Lawrence worried, it’s what might go on underneath them. His chapter of the conservation group Surfrider Foundation is working to maintain support for the drilling moratorium along the Virginia coast.
LAWRENCE: I definitely wouldn’t want to see platforms on the horizon for one thing. For people who have seen those platforms, and you can see them in California, they take away from how beautiful a horizon is anywhere and it just destroys the view basically.
YOUNG: Lawrence hears rumblings from Virginia’s capitol in Richmond and Washington, DC, where state and federal lawmakers are eager to increase domestic energy production. In Congress, Republican Senate energy committee chair Pete Domenici says the country needs to explore its offshore resources, especially for natural gas.
DOMENICI: I know that offshore is almost a sacred issue to some. But the American people are going to find out what a shortage of natural gas is gonna do to them.
YOUNG: Domenici says high natural gas prices affect home heating, electricity generation, manufacturing and even farming. The energy bill the Senate is now debating includes a call to inventory natural gas on the outer continental shelf. That’s angered drilling opponents like Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida.
A bird’s eye view of a natural gas ocean rig. (Photo: Spare the Air)
MARTINEZ: First of all, if you have no intentions of drilling in that area you would not necessarily need an inventory. The very nature of the inventory includes soundings and, by its nature, explosive charges that have to go underwater which have the effect of destroying marine life. So if we’re not going to drill in the gulf, and our position is we should not, there’s no point in inventorying and no point in destroying marine life.
YOUNG: Florida’s lawmakers have drawn an uncompromising line in the sand to protect their beaches. But other drilling proposals circulating in Congress aim for softer targets, states that might be receptive to offshore drilling if there were some more money in it. Under the current system, revenue from mineral leases more than six miles from shore go to the federal government. Domenici would like to change that.
DOMENICI: Those states that have moratoria off their shores that they can’t drill. If they would like to let us drill, let’s let them say yes. And then let’s pay them a little more royalties than we’ve been paying.
YOUNG: Domenici expressed frustration that he has so far been unable to work that change into the energy bill. Democratic senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana supports his effort. She especially wants to see more of the money that drilling generates returned to her state to pay for coastal restoration. And she says drilling for natural gas presents fewer environmental challenges than drilling for oil.
LANDRIEU: There’s a real lack of understanding about the safety of drilling on the outer continental shelf. So we have a lot of education to do in the nation but we’re up for it and I’m relatively young so we’ll keep working on it.
YOUNG: The proposal to give states more say in the drilling decisions alarms environmentalists, who see it as a back door attack on federal coastal protections. Ethan Manuel is an energy lobbyist with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
MANUEL: That would really be a chink in the armor. They really want to find the weak link in the national moratorium and they’d probably go to states like Virginia or Georgia, that has a much more conservative state government than say, California.
YOUNG: Which brings us back to Virginia Beach where state senator Frank Wagner was looking for ways to lower natural gas prices.
WAGNER: The people that I represent are looking for solutions. They’re demanding solutions. They understand that they’re sending their sons and daughters overseas, yes to fight terrorism, but also to protect energy supplies.
YOUNG: Wagner had sponsored a bill calling for Virginia to explore its energy reserves when he got a call from a Congressional staffer in Washington promoting the idea of letting states decide on offshore drilling.
WAGNER: And I said, “tell me more.”
YOUNG: Wagner’s bill became a request to have Virginia consider opting out of the drilling moratoria. He says new drilling technology minimizes environmental impact and makes spills less likely. And the platforms would be far from the coast.
WAGNER: Why should Virginia be held back if Virginia wants to do it? And all we’re asking for now is to have that right to have that debate in Virginia and if we decide that’s what we want, then give us, grant us that power to do that. And I do know in South Carolina that a similar resolution with identical language to my bill already has passed their house and is over in their senate right now. And so I think there’s a groundswell going on.
YOUNG: Wagner's bill easily won approval in the state's general assembly. But it did not go over well with some in Virginia Beach, including the city's mayor, hotel owners and Ari Lawrence's group Surfrider Foundation.
[CRASHING WAVES AND SURF]
LAWRENCE: Yeah, preserving what we have to enjoy right now is pretty much our primary concern. Say there is an accident, the effects that it could have on the marine life and the beaches, the economy, everything. It would be devastating.
YOUNG: That argument persuaded Virginia Governor Mark Warner, who is in his last year in office, to veto the drilling bill. But that's not the end of it. Warner asked a panel to study the issue this summer and drilling proponents say they'll keep trying to persuade Virginians that they can have both natural beauty and natural gas from their coastline. For Living on Earth I'm Jeff Young in Virginia Beach.
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