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Interior Dept. Hearing - Opening vast new portions of the Gulf to oil and gas drilling
by Darwin BondGraham Thursday, Apr. 09, 2009 at 12:27 AM (email address validated)

Gathered today on the posh Uptown campus of Tulane University in New Orleans a crowd of two hundred citizens, the vast majority of them older white men dressed in conservative grey and blue suits, most of them representing oil and gas companies, gathered to hear and be heard by the Obama administration's Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. The event was equal parts sales pitch and public hearing on a major new energy plan being proposed for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) by the administration.

Interior Dept. Heari...
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Under political pressure late last year the Democratic controlled Congress let lapse a long-standing ban on new oil and gas drilling leases off the Outer Continental Shelf, coastal waters more than 3 miles from the shores of Alaska, the West Coast, Gulf of Mexico, and Atlantic seaboard. The Bush administration's victory was initially seen as a temporary win for the oil and gas industry. Many observers expected the Democratic controlled Congress to block Bush's order, but as gas prices hiked higher and elections loomed the Democrats backed down. Now it appears the new administration will largely embrace the essentials of the Bush plan, with some green garnish.

Since taking office the Obama administration has shown no desire to reinstate the ban on OCS drilling in perviously closed areas. Furthermore, the administration seems poised to promote large ecologically destructive “renewable” projects along the OCS, in addition to oil and gas wells. Few observers have yet to note this. Instead the most media reports speak of a “balanced” approach and imply that the Obama plan is somehow more environmentally sensitive when it in fact could prove even more destructive.

One of the new Interior Secretary's first moves in office was to propose a four-part strategy for developing a new, comprehensive approach to energy resources for the Outer Continental Shelf. Today's hearing, the second in a four stop tour to publicly vet the plan, was in the heart of OCS oil and gas corporate country – the Louisiana Gulf coast. The Gulf of Mexico waters off Texas and Louisiana are among the few that have been fully exploited as the ban never applied to them. Florida's Gulf coasts, however, as well as California and the Atlantic coasts now stand to be reopened for drilling leases. In all this amounts to 1.7 billion acres of ocean floor and the Houston to New Orleans petro-corporations are well poised to profit.

Salazar sold his plan saying it emphasized three things; renewables, oil and gas, and sensitive environmental areas and resources. In spite of two of these three points, the vast majority of detail and attention is clearly on oil and gas. Salazar described “green” renewable development projects as merely being part of a balanced portfolio including oil and gas on the OCS. Interior's vision for such “green” projects mostly involves mega and gigawatt sized wind farms, gargantuan ocean current turbines, and tidal energy harvesters. These projects are mostly unfeasible along the Gulf Coast. They will likely be built mostly along the West Coast and Atlantic where public opposition to oil and gas drilling has already emerged strong.

Ironically, these sorts of projects have hugely negative environmental impacts in coastal regions similar to large scale oil and gas projects. Furthermore, they do little to decentralize the production of energy or place it closer to those consuming power. Instead, it would rely on major corporations to invest in super-projects with large footprints on the ocean floor and surface ecologies. It would require massive electricity transmission lines, and commence a profound and unknown transformation of the ocean environments yet again.

Salazar described the administration's energy plans as existing in a “portfolio” form adding that in addition to the OCS developments he would push hard for so-called “clean coal” and nuclear energy.

Also present at the hearings were Sen. Mary Landrieau (D-LA), Rep. Gene Taylor (D-MS) Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA), Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA), Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA), Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). All seemed eager to push Salazar further on oil and gas exploitation. Landrieau and Boustany took aim especially at proposed tax changes that would affect oil and gas companies with Boustany saying, “we're killing explorational production jobs with these policies.”

Congressman Bill Cassidy used his five minute speech period to rail against what he called false notions that oil and gas projects receive larger government subsidies than renewable energies. He railed against environmental concerns stating that, “paradoxically, offshore oil and gas drilling can be environmentally beneficial as it can actually reduce seepage,” of oil into the ocean from natural pressure. According to Cassidy's logic more rig drilling operations in the Gulf would also decrease tanker trips because most oil is pumped onshore through undersea pipelines; “this would decrease oil spills,” he explained. Unable to recall what the NOAA acronym stands for (it's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Cassidy then bragged about the health of coral reefs off the Lousiaina/Texas coastline saying they are flourishing in spite of the riggs. Another jocular comment was Cassidy's invitation to Salazar to “come fishing,” sometime on his boat around the oil rigs which he described as wonderful habitat for sea life. “We don't fish, we catch,” he joked.

The most sensitive comments of the day came not from a Democrat but from freshman Rep. Joseph Cao who pointed out that “four years after Katrina our people continue to suffer,” adding that wetlands must be restored to prevent future catastrophe in New Orleans. However, Cao then went on to quote statistics provided to him by the American Energy Alliance, a political lobby group created by the oil and gas industry in 1993. Paraphrasing a recent AEA report, Cao surmised that “lifting the OCS ban would be good, it would do more than many stimulus packages combined.” Cao was widely criticized by New Orleanians for voting against the stimulus package passed last month.

At times the hearing seemed more like an advertisement for oil and gas drilling than a public hearing on a planned course of action. Salazar had representatives of the USGS and MMS present a study of “examples of offshore renewable energy” and other possibilities for the OCS. According to the researchers, the Gulf coast is a poor location for wind, tidal and current energy projects. In oil and gas, however, the Gulf dominates all other OCS regions. More than 85 billion barrels of oil are technically recoverable while more than 420 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are.

Virtually nothing of substance was said by any of the politicians or civil servants present today about climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, ocean acidification, or the precipitous loss of Louisiana's wetlands. Several audience members who were permitted to speak to Sec. Salazar for three minutes a piece during the public comment period ending the hearing brought up these conspicuously absent issues. All of the Congress members appeared to have left the meeting before public comment commenced.

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Salazar speaking
by Darwin BondGraham Thursday, Apr. 09, 2009 at 12:27 AM

Salazar speaking...
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The Interior Department's apt seal depicting a bison, nearly all of which were wiped out by US settler colonists in the 19th century via hunting and thrill killing from trains.

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