Expansion in Gulf of Mexico drilling splits U.S. House panel along party lines

By: - January 20, 2022 6:14 pm

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

As the Biden administration’s move to scrap new oil and gas leases remains in unsettled legal territory, Democrats and Republicans on a U.S. House panel sharply disagreed about the merits of new energy development in the Gulf of Mexico.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, including Chairman Alan Lowenthal of California, said reducing energy development off the Gulf Coast was one way to drive down emissions from fossil fuels.

Republicans, including ranking member Pete Stauber of Minnesota and southern Louisiana’s Garret Graves, responded that reducing domestic production would not meaningfully lower global emissions because the demand would be filled by other sources.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden paused new leases both offshore and on federal lands. U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty blocked the pause in a June ruling. The administration complied with Doughty’s order and held a lease sale in November that provided 1.7 million acres of new leasing rights in the Gulf of Mexico.

The November lease sale showed the “administration has not yet found the political courage necessary” to confront climate change, Lowenthal said, calling on Biden to do more to curb emissions.

“While the administration has taken numerous positive steps and is moving in a positive direction, good is not nearly enough,” Lowenthal said. “Both Congress and the Biden administration must do more to ensure that the management of our public waters aligns with the commitment to reduce emissions.”

Gulf drilling has effects beyond the climate, affecting the health and safety of nearby residents, said Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist with the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists.

“Siting yet more drilling infrastructure within the Gulf could place additional health burdens on residents living alongside and suffering from the output of fossil fuel facilities,” Dahl said.

Coastal Louisiana is also more directly affected by climate change than other communities, she added. The sea level is rising faster along the Louisiana coast than “almost anywhere else in the world,” Dahl said.

Beverly L. Wright, the executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, described the negative consequences Gulf energy production has caused in Black communities, including eroding, oil-covered pipes and “massive amounts of toxic pollution” from oil production.

“I have seen firsthand the effects of climate change, environmental racism and policies that favor the oil and gas industry over the health and safety of my children and families,” she said.

In written testimony, Wright, who is Black, cited an NAACP report that found more than 1 million Black people live within a half-mile of an oil or gas facility, where pollution exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for cancer risk.

“This report is further confirmation of the connection between pollution and race and the existence of environmental racism,” she wrote.

Responding to a question from Rep. Donald McEachin, (D-Va.), Wright, a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said jobs in the oil and gas industry could be replaced by work in renewable energy sources.

For example, sites damaged by oil and gas pollution could be transitioned to solar farms, she said.

Republicans defend drilling

Graves, who led the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority before his election to Congress, said Democrats’ and expert witnesses’ view of the climate impact of reduced drilling was off base.

Gulf production creates relatively few emissions, he said. Reducing production there would only push production to areas with worse standards, he said.

“If we’re going to stop leasing in the Gulf of Mexico or otherwise … all that does is squeeze a balloon and cause production to happen in other areas,” he said. “All it does when we stop domestic production is increase our dependence on foreign energy sources with greater emissions.”

Rep. Yvette Herrell, (R-N.M.), said reducing U.S. production would have no impact on other countries.

“It is a global problem and I think our producers around the country have done a phenomenal job of lowering CO[2] emissions,” Herrell said. “But how do we really protect the environment if we’re not going to hold other countries to the same standards?”

Stauber also noted that the revenue from lease sales was largely used to fund conservation programs. The November sale brought in $192 million.

“Therefore, I look forward to more lease sales,” he said. “I look forward to producing more American energy for our homes and businesses. And I look forward to funding conservation.”

Louisianans disagree on racial impact

Graves and Wright exchanged differing interpretations of the energy industry’s disparate impacts on Black communities in Louisiana.

Graves, who is white, took issue with Wright’s description of the race-based impacts of oil and gas production, saying he was “actually kind of offended” that she suggested energy production was racist.

Some parishes — including Plaquemines, Lafourche, Terrebone and Cameron — closest to oil and gas production have Black populations ranging from 4% to 21%, Graves said. The Black share of the state’s population is 32.8%, according to Census data.

Graves didn’t question Wright directly, but at her next invitation to speak, she addressed Graves and said he was selective in choosing the communities he used as examples.

“I do want to say to my fellow Louisianian … I also live in Louisiana,” she said. “He’s insulted by my saying this is racist. I’m also insulted by racism that I live with every day.”

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.

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