Gulf Spill Sparks Drilling Debate Along Party Lines But Gov’t Says Less Than 0.001% of Oil Spilled in Federal Waters Since 1980

By Penny Starr | May 20, 2010 | 7:10 PM EDT

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week that the investigation of the oil platform explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will pause offshore exploration and drilling but he stopped short of saying it would be halted. Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, left, were questioned by the committee about progress in fighting the oil spill. ( Starr)

( – Congressional hearings on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico have revealed the political divide between pro-offshore drilling lawmakers and those who cite the accident as reason to halt any expanded drilling in the Gulf. Meanwhile, government reports show that less than 0.001 percent of oil culled from rigs in federal waters has been spilled in the last 30 years.
According to the Mineral Management Service (MMS), a Department of Interior agency that regulates offshore drilling, there are 3,500 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico producing oil or natural gas. The MMS also reports that, since 1980, less than 0.001 percent of oil produced in all federal waters has been spilled.
The cause of the April 20 explosion and spill from a British Petroleum (BP) rig, which also killed 11 men, has not been determined. And the environmental impact of the spill is far from conclusive, according to testimony by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson before the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works on May 18.
Nonetheless, many Democrats now want to reinstate the decades-long moratorium on offshore drilling that expired in 2008. Some Republicans disagree, however, saying that the United States not only needs the resources that provide 30 percent of the U.S. annual energy supply, and that more should be done to tap the vast resources of both oil and natural gas in domestic waters.
Even before the offshore explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform, the debate about offshore exploration and drilling was heating up. After Congress let the 26-year moratorium on offshore oil exploration and drilling expire on Oct. 1, 2008, environmentalists decried the move and started lobbying to reinstate the moratorium.
But in testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee in February 2009, J. Larry Nichols, chairman of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and natural gas trade association, expressed disappointment that Salazar had already delayed implementation of a five-year plan for selling offshore drilling leases on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.
“Secretary Salazar’s announcement means that development of U.S. offshore resources can be stalled, depriving the nation of tens of thousands of new jobs, billions of dollars in revenues to federal, state, and local governments, and greater energy security,” Nichols said.
Nichols also said that federal lands – onshore and offshore – hold enough undiscovered recoverable natural gas to heat 60 million households for 160 years. The land also holds enough recoverable oil to produce gasoline for 65 million cars for 60 years, he said.
“Moreover,” Nichols testified, “a recent ICF International study commissioned by API shows that developing the offshore areas that have been subject to congressional moratoria, as well as the resources in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge and a small portion of currently unavailable federal lands in the Rockies, could increase U.S. crude oil production by as much as 2 million barrels per day in 2030, offsetting nearly a fifth of the nation’s oil imports.”
That same ICF International study states that developing America’s domestic oil and natural gas resources could generate more than $1.7 trillion in government revenue, including $1.3 trillion in revenues from off-shore drilling alone.
In a 2009 report, Offshore Access to Oil and Natural Gas Resources, the API reported that, “According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, in fiscal year 2008, the agency distributed a record $23.4 billion to the federal government, states and American Indian tribes from onshore and offshore energy production” and “nearly $22 billion of that amount came from oil and natural gas production.”
The Obama administration favors what it calls a comprehensive energy policy that emphasizes “green technologies,” including wind, solar, and biomass.
But the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration estimates that just 6 percent of the nation’s energy needs were being met by renewable energy sources in 2007. The report also estimates that by the year 2030, only 10 percent of domestic energy needs will be supplied by renewable energy sources, such as ethanol, hydropower and biomass.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to argue on Capitol Hill about whether the Deepwater Horizon accident is a sign that offshore drilling should be halted or, with new safety strategies in place, whether the expansion-exploration and drilling should go forward.
“The real issue is, how do you go forward?” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) asked the first panel at last week’s hearing, which included Nancy Helen Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “And if we don’t go forward in the right way, we’re going to have another situation like we had with Three Mile Island where nothing got done in the nuclear area and the rest of the world took leadership in this area.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said that the Gulf spill should be put into perspective as decisions about energy policies and regulations are made.
“I was thinking about a terrible airplane crash with many people killed,” Alexander said. “That happens in the United States, unfortunately.
“And what do we do?” he asked. “We immediately have highly professional people who see if we can find out what went wrong – what we can do to prevent it again. And we’ve come up with a number of safety improvements. We have black boxes and other things to find out things.
“But one thing we don’t do is we don’t ground all the airplanes,” Alexander said. “We don’t stop flying.”
But Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) criticized that view.
“I remind our colleague from Tennessee that we do stop flying when we know that there is imminent danger, whether it’s volcano ash or whether it’s an attack on our financial center,” Lautenberg said. “We stop flying. And what we ought to do is stop drilling.”
Salazar stopped short of saying that the oil spill in the Gulf would lead the Obama administration to halt all offshore drilling when the panel asked if the risk of another incident like the current Gulf oil spill could be eliminated.
“Nothing in life is risk-free,” Salazar said.