A Lease on Life for U.S. Offshore Resources

Choice, Consequences, and Consumers
July 31, 2017
“Ree”-Examining Rare Earth Elements
August 7, 2017

Over the years, PACE has consistently spoken out in favor of increasing our nation’s supply of energy, across all sources. That’s why earlier this week, we filed a formal comment letter with the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) advocating for development of a new and expanded offshore oil and natural gas leasing program. If you or your organization would like to join the comment effort, let us know by emailing laura@energyfairness.org and we can guide you through the process.

At this point, BOEM is undertaking an initial scoping process for its five-year (2019-2024) leasing program. The agency is asking for public comments, due by August 17, on what areas should be considered for leasing as it assembles its Draft Proposed Program (DPP). In the months to come, the agency will continue with inquiries covering specific areas and environmental impacts.

Even the federal government estimates that U.S. federal waters contain abundant amounts of oil and natural gas, perhaps enough to supply the nation for over a decade. However, many of these resources are located in areas that are either completely or largely cut off from consideration for development. By some estimates, 94% of federal offshore areas are off-limits to development.

You might ask why offshore oil and gas development is still so important, when headlines trumpet that the U.S. is now a leading energy producer, prices at the pump are reminiscent of the late 1990s, and the economy seems less energy-intensive. Two over-arching concerns led PACE to file these comments and focus on it in this week’s second newsletter post: the economy and national security.

Studies have found that developing these resources in places like the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and the Alaskan Arctic could fuel over a half-million jobs and lead to over $300 billion in government revenue. Healthcare, infrastructure, tax reform – all these federal efforts could benefit from the cash influx. States, too, need the additional income and more chances to develop high-quality jobs for their citizens. That’s hitting home with me right now after spending several days in coastal Mississippi, where the landscape and the economy still are healing from the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, now nearly 12 years in the rearview mirror.

Considering the national security angle, you may be surprised to learn that imports continue to make up over 50 percent of the nation’s crude oil and petroleum product supplies. While the U.S. enjoys energy trading relationships with many stable and reliable governments, that’s not always the case. Given our increasingly unpredictable relations with unstable countries who are also energy exporters, it just makes sense to continue to use all the reasonable tools we have to strengthen our energy independence. I like the idea of letting hostile governments know we can take care of ourselves for a decade or more.

Admittedly, expanded offshore leasing would be accompanied by increased environmental impacts. That’s why, as BOEM continues through a planning and comment process that can take up to three years, the agency will include deliberate, thoughtful creation of an Environmental Impact Statement. The agency will also have to consider requirements under several other long-standing, well-established environmental statutes such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. It’s worth noting, too, that as we continue to import energy products from overseas, there’s a significant chance those resources were developed in lands or waters where the concept of environmental regulation is an endangered (or extinct) species. As well, the Obama Administration’s Interior Department concluded last year that a failure to hold offshore lease sales could result in significant environmental and social costs because of the resulting need to develop still other sources.

The BOEM planning process isn’t glamorous, and the career civil servants running it have a lot of tedious work ahead of them, but what they are undertaking is really important, and PACE will draw attention to it again. Decades of prohibitions against offshore leasing and inconsistent policies have stunted the amount of scientific and technical research into what these areas can contribute, and how technology and ingenuity can most efficiently and carefully harness the energy under the seas. In August 2018, I hope we can report back that a thoughtful BOEM public comment process, with contributions from all sides, has helped create a new lease on life for offshore energy.