Congressional oil and gas drilling opponents are ratcheting up their efforts against existing and planned projects in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Seventy-eight House Democrats -- led by Reps. Jay Inslee of Washington and Lois Capps of California -- Thursday asked President Obama to delay exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean planned for this summer until the Gulf spill has been investigated and the administration "has subsequently put into place improved and rigorous prevention technology requirements," according to their letter.
Obama has halted drilling permits from being issued until Interior Secretary Salazar gives him a set of new safety recommendations, expected this month.
But the House Democrats want to ensure this includes Shell Oil's plan to drill five exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea and in the Beaufort Sea off of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and slated to start as early as July 1.
The Gulf spill "continues to highlight the dangers inherent in offshore drilling," the Democrats wrote.
In particular, "there are too many unknowns" to go ahead with the Shell project in the Arctic, including a U.S. Geological Survey study of the science and spill response for the Arctic that will not be complete until October, they say.
Shell's Arctic plans also "assumed that if a blowout were to occur, the drill rig would be unharmed and the same rig could drill a relief well, if necessary," the Democrats wrote. But given the failure of the blowout preventer on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and the subsequent problems with containing the resulting leak, Shell's plan should be revised to include new requirements for emergency shut-off and blowout prevention equipment, the Democrats say.
House Speaker Pelosi backed the Democrats' effort. "I think it is really important, and the burden is now on these companies because they have made certain representations," she said. The Gulf spill "begs the question of what are the odds ... of something happening then to harm the ecology, harm the economy of the region and be unfair to the U.S. taxpayers?"
Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said the company "would not consider drilling in Alaska unless we could do so safely and responsibly." She added, "We understand the different positions of policymakers on this issue, and we continue to engage with them to discuss our plans in Alaska."
Twenty-six House Democrats -- nearly all of whom signed the Shell letter and led by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. -- Thursday sent a letter to Salazar and Minerals Management Service Director Elizabeth Birnbaum asking that a second BP-run deepwater rig in the Gulf of Mexico be stopped and undergo a safety evaluation. Grijalva Thursday introduced a bill that would retroactively remove all offshore oil spill liability caps for companies.
Meanwhile, Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, both D-Md., and Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both D-N.J. -- asked Obama to abandon a planned drilling project off Virginia's coast, arguing it would impede Navy training and testing. They cite a finding by the Defense Department that roughly three-quarters of the area within the lease sale is currently being used for Navy operations "that are utterly incompatible with oil and gas activity," they wrote.
The lease sale will be held no earlier than 2011 and is part of the Interior Department's five-year offshore drilling leasing program, through 2012. MMS has estimated that the area may contain 130 million barrels of oil and 1.14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Salazar said this week that the department is evaluating whether to go ahead with a planned August lease sale in the Gulf -- which would be located between nine and 250 miles offshore in waters ranging from 16 to more than 10,975 feet, or more than twice the depth as where the BP Deepwater Horizon was located. "It's an issue that is being evaluated," Salazar said. "I'm not saying how it's going to go."
At the same time as the drilling opponents are ramping up their efforts, Gulf Coast lawmakers in both parties are fighting back. Reps. Charles Boustany, R-La., and Gene Green, D-Texas, have attracted 48 co-signers -- 38 Republicans and 10 Democrats -- to a letter they are sending Salazar today to open up new permits for drilling projects in shallower waters.
They are concerned that as many as 50 of roughly 60 shallow water rigs operating in the Gulf "within the next six weeks will be unable to work if the moratorium is not lifted for shallow water drilling operations."
They say at least 5,000 jobs directly tied to the rigs alone would be lost in the region. Drilling in water more shallow than where the BP Deepwater Horizon rig was operating has occurred without major incident for decades. Deepwater drilling, they argue, involves "very different risks and challenges than those for shallow water jackup rigs and other platforms."
All of this comes as the Obama administration chastised BP Thursday for not providing enough public information about the Gulf spill and demanded the release of all data and information the company has collected. "In responding to this oil spill, it is critical that all actions be conducted in a transparent manner, with all data and information related to the spill readily available to the United States Government and the American people," Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano and EPA Administrator Jackson wrote BP CEO Tony Hayward.
BP America President Lamar McKay testified this week that the company was doing everything possible to keep the public and government informed. "Those efforts, to date, have fallen short in both their scope and effectiveness," Napolitano and Jackson wrote.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. -- a longtime leading advocate of the Freedom of Information Act -- asked Obama Thursday to "take immediate steps" to increase public access to government information regarding the spill. He specifically asked for all monitoring data and the safety and effectiveness of the dispersant used to clean up the leaking oil.
EPA told BP Thursday that the company has 24 hours to identify a "less toxic" chemical dispersant to break up oil slicks on the surface and on the oil as it is being leaked underwater. BP has used 700,000 gallons of that chemical already.
Administration officials have not been immune to criticism regarding their actions before and after the spill began, including not moving away from an initial joint BP-government estimate that roughly 5,000 barrels of oil has been leaking from the BP rig daily. BP conceded Thursday that more oil than the company had estimated has been leaking every day. The company is collecting 5,000 barrels of oil a day from a mile-long tube the company inserted over the weekend but oil continued to leak from the ruptured well.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said Thursday that the 5,000-barrels per day "was always understood to be a very rough estimate." She said a newer estimate was still being calculated and declined to speculate on a new ballpark figure.
That effort could be helped now that Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and House Global Warming Chairman Edward Markey on Wednesday started live streaming video footage of the oil spewing out of the ruptured well, nearly a mile below the surface. The footage was posted online in the afternoon following a letter Markey sent to McKay on Wednesday, requesting BP make the feeds publicly available.
This article appears in the May 22, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.