Lawmakers fight plan to permit offshore drilling

June 16, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- More than a dozen areas off Maryland and near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay are being considered for oil and gas drilling rights by the Bush administration, although lawmakers are working to scrap a plan they say is environmentally risky.

The proposal for oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast -- part of the five-year national energy plan unveiled by President Bush earlier this year -- enters its first phase this summer with the release of a draft report that will consider 1,000 proposed tracts from New Jersey to Georgia.

Among the plots are about 15 9-square-mile tracts nearly 100 miles off the Maryland coast and another 31 tracts off Virginia, about 15 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. By next spring, the proposed 1,000 tracts will be winnowed to 250 for oil or gas exploration. Two leasings are planned, one in 1994 and another in 1997.

But lawmakers from Maryland and other coastal states say the potential for environmental harm is too great and have called for a one-year continuation of a moratorium -- scheduled to end in October -- on any leasing for oil and gas drilling. Although there have been test wells drilled off the East Coast during the past decade, there has been no commercial exploration.

"This area supports a rich diversity of economically important and ecologically fragile biological resources. Each year, tourism and commercial and recreational fishing contribute billions of dollars to the economies of our states," 19 Democratic and Republican lawmakers wrote in a letter to Representative Sidney R. Yates, D-Ill., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, which backed the moratorium early this month.

"Compared to this, the mineral resources that could be extracted from the entire lease sale are insignificant," wrote the lawmakers, who included Representatives Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st, and Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th.

This week the House Appropriations Committee will consider the one-year moratorium on the plan.

Meanwhile, the four senators from Maryland and Virginia are pushing for a similar moratorium in the Senate, saying the potential environmental risks are too great.

The administration's energy package, pointing to the specter of foreign energy dependence, issued a renewed call "to stimulate oil production" in the United States with "responsible" development of offshore oil resources.

The plan targets the nation's outer Continental shelf, the area that begins three miles from shore, as "one of the most promising areas left in the United States as a potential source for future natural gas and oil supplies" and estimates that as many as 145 trillion cubic feet of gas and 18 billion barrels of oil are under the waves.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, that gas would power the United States for eight years and the oil would take care of U.S. energy needs for three years.

Geologic analysis suggests that the Atlantic region has gas reserves, although it will take exploration to make sure, according to an official with the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, which is handling the proposed lease sales. "You basically know more when you get out there and drill," she said.

Kenneth Schwarz, program chief for the environmental geology program with the Department of Natural Resources, said Maryland officials are particularly concerned about how near proposed sites are to the Chesapeake Bay and "submarine canyons," ancient riverbeds far off the coast that serve as fish habitats.

Judy Johnson, president of the Committee to Save Assateague, a longtime opponent of drilling, said, "This is a major north-south route for mammals and fish."

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a report last week saying the risks of oil drilling in and around the bay's coastline "so far outweigh the benefits that it should be banned."

But mineral service officials say many areas under consideration will not be set aside for leasing. The service is considering 250 tracts in the Atlantic to maximize potential and minimize environmental conflict, according to one official.

The service has received more than 1,000 comments on the proposal.

Another 90-day comment period will follow the release of its draft proposal and environmental report to state and local governments and the public in July or August.

Last year, the Bush administration suspended planned sales of oil tracts off most of California, Oregon, Washington, southwestern Florida and New England's Georges Bank pending new environmental studies.

That action left some East Coast lawmakers wondering why their states did not receive the same consideration.

"The federal law governing offshore oil and gas resources

requires the fair and equitable treatment of all states," said Representative Walter B. Jones, D-N.C., chairman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. "Can the president be saying that the coastline of North Carolina is less beautiful, less valuable or less sensitive than that of Florida?"

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