The Energy 202: Industry group says hurricanes bolster case for expanding offshore drilling

Washington Post | Paulina Firozi | September 17, 2018

THE LIGHTBULB

Hurricane season is in full swing — and it’s throwing into the spotlight an ongoing debate between industry and environmental groups over expanding offshore drilling.

The National Ocean Industries Association is pointing to hurricanes as a reason the United States should allow offshore drilling in areas beyond the Gulf of Mexico. Because most of the nation’s offshore drilling is concentrated in such a hurricane-prone region, the lobbying group that represents offshore energy companies warns the country is “rolling the dice” with natural disasters, which can jeopardize the country’s oil supply if bad weather forces companies to shut down oil production and evacuate oil platforms.

The group wants the Interior Department to expand oil production into the southeast Atlantic, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and off the coast of California and Alaska as part of the Trump administration’s controversial proposal to open most of the nation’s outer continental shelf to potential drilling.

Yet environmental groups are pointing to Florence as the latest evidence this hurricane season that offshore drilling shouldn’t happen anywhere. “As this hurricane is proving, there’s no area off the coast of the U.S. that is immune to hurricanes or storms,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program for the Sierra Club. Florence was downgraded on Sunday to a tropical depression. Yet Manuel said the risk of oil spills and the fact that there’s no real way to move oil facilities “out of harm’s way” shows “there’s no safe place to drill.”

For its part, NOIA says that dispersing drilling across a broader geographical area will better ensure the country’s energy security in the event of a natural disaster. By concentrating drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, “what we’ve done is put all of our oil and natural gas eggs into one basket,” NOIA President Randall Luthi said in an interview. 

NOIA in part blames energy policy, which makes about 94 percent of the U.S. continental shelf off limits to drilling. In January, the Trump administration announced its proposed five-year plan to widely expand drilling in U.S. continental waters. But in April, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Congress he would scale back that plan, responding to opposition from both Democratic and Republican governors and lawmakers in coastal states.

The storms exacerbate the drilling limitation, Luthi said, since companies start shutting down their units and evacuating their workers.  Production pauses, depending on the duration, he said, can have a “significant effect on the amount of oil and gas that’s being produced for a period of time.”

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