In a House Natural Resources Committee hearing this week, committee members focused on the connection between offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. climate goals. This much is clear: continuing ‘business as usual’ offshore oil and gas leasing simply does not put us on a path to meet our climate goals.
Every decision our leaders make now needs to consider a clean energy future, not continuing our reliance on fossil fuels. And the administration can and must move towards this future by offering a five-year program with no leasing. As a quick reminder, offshore leasing is regulated under the Department of Interior through the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Every five years, BOEM is tasked with putting out an offshore leasing program that considers the effect of leasing on the environment and communities.
This year, BOEM will release a new five-year program. Rep. Mike Levin from California was correct when he said, “I believe including any new leasing in BOEM’s upcoming five-year plan would be at odds with the administration’s stated climate and environmental justice goals and that’s why I urge the administration to move forward on a five-year leasing plan that does not include new leasing”
Subcommittee Chair Alan Lowenthal laid the groundwork for why this hearing was happening: the climate crisis. The earth’s seven hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015; there is no doubt that climate change is already here and impacting communities. Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is definitely contributing to climate change, and the last thing oil and gas companies need is more leases. As Rep. Lowenthal pointed out during the hearing, they’ve already stockpiled over 9 million acres of leases that they aren’t using. Putting an end to new leasing in the Gulf and elsewhere in the U.S. would help drive down global emissions.
“We know that reducing emissions from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will help reduce overall carbon emissions. Research shows that on average, eliminating 1 barrel of US oil supply decreases global supply by about half a barrel. We can successfully reduce oil and gas leasing in the United States without driving up emissions overseas.” – Rep. Lowenthal of California
House Democrats brought in three expert witnesses to testify on drilling in the Gulf and the associated climate and environmental justice implications.
Dr. Kristina Dahl, a senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke to the climate crisis sharing that, “With the stakes so high, continuing with lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico without taking the time to fully interrogate whether or how the enabled extraction will fit within our nation’s future is both reckless and irresponsible.”
Dr. Beverly Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, spoke powerfully to what communities in the Gulf have been experiencing at the hands of the fossil fuel industry, “I have seen and felt firsthand the effects of climate change, environmental racism, and policies that favor the oil and gas industry over the health and safety of Black children and families.” She connected the health impacts from offshore drilling to petrochemical facilities that impact communities along the Gulf Coast.
Max Sarinsky, a senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity, focused his testimony on what Interior has the discretion to do and the need to use the best models and best available science, sharing “In short, the federal fossil-fuel program greatly increases global greenhouse gas emissions, severely harming present and future generations of Americans” and “the federal government should reform oil and gas leasing to account for climate harms, and refocus land-use policy toward facilitating a necessary transition to a renewable economy.”
House Republicans dragged out the same, tired, and outdated arguments in favor of continuing to support the fossil fuel industry at the expense of climate and communities. The denial from republicans on the realities of environmental racism and the need to reform our broken federal oil and gas leasing system is deeply troubling.
Rep. Donald McEachin of Virginia, a true champion for environmental justice, questioned the witnesses on the ways to move towards an equitable renewable energy future that would create jobs that don’t come at the expense of public health and the climate. Rep. Katie Porter of California, in her usual style, asked direct questions about how much taxpayers are subsidizing both the extraction and cleanup of fossil fuels. Last year alone, we subsidized the oil and gas industry a staggering $660 billion.
The theme of this hearing was clear; offshore drilling contributes to the climate crisis, harms frontline communities, and we cannot continue leasing the Gulf as business as usual. Not only does the Department of Interior have to account for climate harm & the environmental justice implications of new leasing, but there is a real opportunity to change what our energy future looks like. As Rep. Levin put it, we must “consider how incompatible our federal oil and gas program is with our efforts to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”
Gulf Coast communities and the marine ecosystem are already bearing the brunt of climate change in innumerable ways, from hurricanes to heatwaves to serious human health impacts. As we envision the clean energy future we need, ending new offshore oil and gas leasing must be a part of that conversation. The next step is clear – BOEM needs to offer a new five-year program with no leasing so we can start moving towards a better future for the Gulf coast and our climate.