House rebukes Trump with bills banning drilling off coasts
WASHINGTON - House Democrats - and more than a dozen Republicans - just issued one of the starkest rebukes yet to the Trump administration's efforts to expand U.S. oil and natural gas production.
The House's passage of a pair of bills banning oil and gas drilling in most federally-controlled waters solidifies Democrats' decade-long shift against offshore drilling amid growing concerns about oil spills and global warming. Democrats are also expected to push through a bill later Thursday banning drilling in an ecologically sensitive but oil-rich section of northeast Alaska.
The trio of legislation stands little chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate or being signed by President Donald Trump, whose administration has sought to aggressively expand energy development. But it's politically significant for a party that has been slowly inching toward this moment ever since the Gulf of Mexico endured the world's largest marine oil spill in 2010 - and ammunition for the many Democrats running for president who have promised to end federal oil and gas leasing both on- and offshore.
In a 238-189 vote on Wednesday, a dozen Republicans joined the vast majority of House Democrats to approve a prohibition on offshore drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. A similar measure to permanently extend a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in much of the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, an area long eyed by drillers, passed by an even wider margin of 248-180. Several coastal Republicans, including nearly the entire Florida delegation, backed that ban. The eastern Gulf moratorium, put into effect in 2006, is set to expire in 2022.
And on Thursday, the House will vote on a bill to reverse the opening of 1.6 million acres of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which was included in the 2017 Republican tax cut package.
Before the votes on Wednesday, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., lead sponsor of a measure to block offshore leasing in the eastern Gulf, noted the significance of the political shift - describing a time when Democratic leaders sought to open new ocean expanses to drilling.
"I remember very well counseling then-Senator Obama on the campaign trail and was very disappointed to get a call from the White House, early in their tenure, that said, 'Yeah, we may open up some areas.' " Both parties were once motivated by a desire to keep gasoline prices low and reduce dependence on foreign oil.
In early 2010, Obama proposed to the consternation of environmentalists to open a swath of the Atlantic from Delaware to Florida to drilling. But ever since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in April of that year, Castor added, there has been a "sea change."
Soon after the disaster, which unleashed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf and devastated beachfront economies along the Gulf, the Obama administration halted new offshore lease sales and split up the agency overseeing offshore oil activity. Though by 2015 his administration was back to pursuing leasing the Atlantic, Obama tried cementing his environmental legacy on his way out of office in 2016 by withdrawing hundreds of millions of acres of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans from new offshore oil and gas drilling.
The public is now more or less in line with that position. According to a Pew poll from early 2018, 51 percent of Americans oppose allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling, while 42 percent support it. The portion of Americans who support offshore drilling declined by 10 points in the four years since 2014, they survey found.
But in Washington this week, Republicans leaders branded the bills as a handout to Russia, whose state-run energy companies would face less competition in international oil markets if the United States produced less oil.
"Let's call this bill what it is: a gift to Vladimir Putin at the expense of American taxpayers," Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., wrote on Twitter.
Key business lobbying groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Ocean Industries Association, also came out strongly against the legislation, lamenting how many Democrats are now opposed to offshore drilling entirely.
"We've seen a substantial shift on the other side," said Tim Charters, NOIA's vice president of governmental and political affairs. "There are a number of folks around town who are trying to figure out how to actually communicate the importance of this energy to folks."
Charters added that with gasoline prices so low for so long, the oil industry is the "victim of our own success," as Americans do not clamor as loudly for more domestic drilling to lower their transportation costs.
Even the Trump administration has been susceptible to pressure to scale back its drilling ambitions, pausing its offshore oil plans in the face of opposition from coastal Republican governors and an unfavorable court ruling out of Alaska earlier this year.
Still, GOP leaders were united in their opposition to the permanent drilling bans. The White House suggested before the votes that Trump would veto the bills should they reach his desk. A senior Senate Republican aide laughed when asked if the Senate would consider undoing its decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.
"Let's just say there's some ties to the oil industry in the GOP leadership that have proven unsettling to me and some of the leaders have been a little more open than others," said Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., a lead sponsor of the bill extending the eastern Gulf ban.
He noted that Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the Nos. 2 and 3 Republicans in the House, are from oil-producing states.