Offshore Areas No Longer Off-Limits to Harmful Oil and Gas Exploration

U.S. Senate Votes 44-54 to Allow Energy Exploration in America's Premier Coastal Waters, Including Marine Sanctuaries and Other Sensitive Areas

WASHINGTON (June 11, 2003) -- In a vote today on energy legislation, drilling proponents defeated a bi-partisan amendment that would have maintained protections for the nation's sensitive coastal and marine areas. The amendment, co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham (D-FL) and Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), as well as several other senators, would have removed a provision of the energy bill (Section 105) authorizing the Interior Department to inventory potential oil and gas resources of the entire Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

This OCS inventory would include highly sensitive or special areas currently under moratoria for energy development. Since 1982, Congress has prevented the Interior Department from conducting leasing, pre-leasing and related activities in the moratorium areas. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed an executive memorandum placing a ten-year moratorium on new leasing on the OCS, which was subsequently extended to 2012 by President Clinton. President George W. Bush included the moratorium language in his FY 04 budget request.

However, if Congress ends up overturning this protection, oil exploration activities that threaten sea life and ocean habitat would be permitted. For example, seismic surveys (conducted with powerful air guns) have harmed fish and whales. In addition, Section 105 requires the Interior Secretary to report to Congress on "impediments" to the development of OCS oil and gas. To the chagrin of states rights' proponents, the secretary is also required to report on the role coastal states and localities have played in stopping environmentally harmful offshore oil-related activities.

"The Senate energy bill undermines 20 years of strong congressional and administrative support for protecting America's coastal areas from harmful offshore oil and gas activities," said Lisa Speer, an oceans expert with NRDC. "Americans won't stand for this kind of short-sighted attack on our valued coastal ecosystems, especially since the economic security of millions of people in many states depends on safeguarding the health of our coasts."

The House voted to strip a similar provision from its comprehensive energy legislation, possibly setting up another showdown on the matter during conference if the Senate energy bill passes.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.