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Democrats target Zinke as GOP floats offshore leasing bill

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Democrats target Zinke as GOP floats offshore leasing bill

A congressional hearing to discuss a draft bill designed to open up more of the United States' outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling quickly shifted to Republican attacks on the Obama administration and Democratic attacks on Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

The Oct. 11 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources was convened to discuss a Republican draft of the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act, or ASTRO Act. The act would open up Mid-Atlantic waters off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia to leasing, as well as permit the Interior secretary to hold lease sales outside of the normal five-year offshore leasing process.

"The ASTRO Act attempts to increase access to OCS lands by placing limitations on the president's authority to withdraw OCS lands from oil and gas leasing," subcommittee chairman Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, said in his opening statement. He said the bill would prevent presidents from doing what Obama did, unilaterally putting OCS areas off-limits to lease sales.

Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, the ranking member, took aim at the proposed bill. "The most concerning [portion of the bill], I believe, is the provision that allows for the secretary of the Interior to schedule offshore lease sales wherever and whenever he wants."

"The point of a five-year planning process would be gone," Lowenthal said. "Instead of gathering and balancing stakeholder input and providing certainty to coastal areas for five years at a time, every coastal area would be perpetually at risk. This would never be acceptable to the people of California."

Lowenthal shifted his fire to Interior Secretary Zinke. "There are new ethical questions every day about Secretary Zinke's travel, including revelations … about political activity at ski resorts and steak houses," he said, referring to news reports that Zinke combined official travel with political activity.

"Then there are his statements on energy that are downright wrong or make no sense," Lowenthal said. He pointed to a Sept. 29 speech to the Heritage Foundation, in which Zinke claimed the U.S. has "struggled to be self-sufficient in producing low-cost, abundant and reliable energy" in recent years.

In addition to changing rules and practices for offshore lease sales, the ASTRO Act would provide for 37.5% of any offshore royalty revenues to go to the specific coastal state where drilling occurs. It would also call for a study on recombining parts of the Interior Department — offshore management agency the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management with offshore safety regulators at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in one agency as they were prior to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in April 2010.

Michael Bromwich, the first head of BOEM who guided the division of what had been the Minerals Management Service into two units, testified that a return to a single agency was "a profoundly bad idea." He said it would reestablish conflicts of interest between units that are required to promote offshore development and units that enforce safety and environmental regulations, and "significantly raise the risk of a catastrophic offshore accident."

"In my experience," Bromwich said, "reorganizations are too often undertaken for reasons of executive vanity, as a way for a new executive or team of executives to put their immediate imprint on an organization, whether the changes make management and organizational sense or not."

South Carolina state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, a Republican who represents portions of three largely rural coastal counties north of Charleston, S.C., said about half the people in his district oppose offshore drilling and half favor it, but almost 100% would be in favor of the economic stimulus drilling could give to their communities centered around the small port of Georgetown, S.C.

"I don't know one person in my district that wouldn't support the idea of revenue sharing," Goldfinch said. "There are a lot of dogmatic perspectives on this, and I think what's lacking, quite honestly, is the truth."

"There are valid concerns on the environmental side, and I think we should have a conversation about those, but we also need to be talking about the truth," Goldfinch testified. "There are conversations right now that 'seismic is going to kill every mammal in the ocean,' that we're not going to have dolphins anymore, that we're not going to have whales anymore, or sea turtles. If I believed that, there's no way I'd support offshore seismic or offshore drilling."

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