By Michael Collins Scripps Howard News Service
WASHINGTON — The oil rig explosion that triggered a catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico has touched off a movement in Congress to protect the West Coast against a similar disaster.
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein announced Thursday they are joining with senators from Washington and Oregon to push for legislation that would permanently ban new oil drilling in federal waters off of the three Pacific Coast states.
“We know this can happen again,” warned Boxer, pointing to a dramatic photo of the fiery explosion in the Gulf. “And from the testimony we have heard, we feel it will happen.”
The other sponsors of the Senate bill are Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington and Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden of Oregon. All six are Democrats.
The Senate legislation comes just one week after Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., filed an identical measure in the House and on the heels of congressional hearings in which lawmakers sought assurances from the oil industry that such a disaster would never happen again.
“They said they cannot make any such assurance,” said Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Given the small amount of oil available off the West Coast and the importance of the coastal economy — which totals $33 billion and supports 568,000 jobs in the three states — opening up the waters to new drilling simply isn’t worth the risk, Feinstein said.
“Now we know what the potential is for catastrophe, and we have to see that it never ever happens again,” she said.
For 26 years, new oil and gas drilling was prohibited in the Outer Continental Shelf, which circles the U.S. shoreline.
But in 2008, then-President George W. Bush lifted a White House moratorium on new drilling, arguing that skyrocketing gas prices had left no choice but to tap into the country’s natural resources. Congress also declined to renew its own moratorium on drilling.
President Barack Obama announced his own plans last month to allow new oil and gas drilling off the nation’s coasts, but said that federal waters along the shores of California, Oregon and Washington would remain off limits until 2017.
Congress members from those states argue a permanent ban is necessary to guarantee that the coasts will remain protected once Obama leaves office.
“We know very clearly that that moratorium is dependent on his presidency and that there is no permanent protection for us,” Boxer said. “This is our only route to go.”
Both the House and Senate proposals would bar the Interior Secretary from issuing new leases for the exploration, development or production of oil or gas in the Outer Continental Shelf off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.
The bill would not impact leases that already are in effect.
Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents the oil and gas industry, called the legislation premature.
“I fully understand the desire of some legislators to do something in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disastrous incident,” Luthi said. “However, I think the consideration of such a large-scale blanket moratorium should be considered very carefully, rationally and in the context of an overall energy plan and policy.”
Even then, Luthi said, Congress should act with caution until the exact cause of the Gulf disaster has been determined.
“We’ve been listening to congressional hearings this week, and while we have certainly some preliminary thoughts about what caused the accident, there’s so much more to be learned and verified,” he said. “There are so many questions left to be answered, I think to act in the heat of the moment is rash.”
As for the argument there is too little oil and gas off the West Coast to justify the risk, Luthi said fields where oil is being produced off the California coast remain viable and that many have yielded far more than what was thought to be in them years ago.
“We really don’t know how much is out there until there is actual discovery and production,” he said. “I think companies ought to be, at some time, given the option of finding out what’s out there.”