Could opening ocean tracts reveal new resources?
Published: Monday, January 22, 2018
The Trump administration's proposal to open new federal waters to offshore drilling comes with a catch.
By the federal government's own estimates, some of those untapped tracts hold relatively small volumes of oil and gas.
Republican lawmakers on Friday asked a panel of agency officials and experts testifying before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources whether a streamlined seismic permitting process would, among other functions, uncover new hydrocarbon pockets in the ocean.
They posed their questions between heated debates over Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's tweetexempting Florida from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's draft five-year offshore program (Greenwire, Jan. 19).
"It's been 30 years, in many of these cases, since you've used seismic in some of these areas," said subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). "How does that really impact us? Technology has become much more sophisticated, and these are outdated references, are they not?"
Walter Cruickshank, BOEM's acting director, agreed. But more advanced techniques don't guarantee greater resources.
"We might get a slightly better image," he said.
It's "possible" that new seismic testing could lead BOEM to revamp its measurements of the oil and gas potential in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, said Pete Erickson, a senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute.
The other hurdle for a Trump administration eager to increase oil and gas drilling is industry itself: There's no guarantee that more sophisticated seismic testing results in a major investment in exploration and drilling.
"Any investment in offshore oil takes a long time to come to fruition, and the companies are making their decisions based on more fundamental trends," Erickson said, "not short-term political stunts."
So far, the American Petroleum Institute (API) has said that its membership sees the draft five-year plan as a step in the right direction.
API has criticized Zinke's "premature" move to exempt Florida from the draft plan without going through the typical process of comment and analysis. "We need to find out what the energy resource really is in the eastern Gulf and on the western side of the state," Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the trade group, said at an event in Washington, D.C., last week.
"Put it out there," Gerard said. "Let the governors comment. Let industry comment. Let the enviros comment."
Gerard added, "But we need to stay focused on the overarching objective, and that is to identify the resources the American people own within the waters of the United States."
Whether or not BOEM identifies new offshore oil and gas, state leaders up and down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have been clear on their stance, said Oceana campaign director Diane Hoskins.
"Coastal communities have made their voices heard: They don't want offshore drilling," she said. "It's flawed to think that's going to change if we allow dangerous seismic testing."
Oil and gas companies want to lease where the resource is located.
The Gulf of Mexico and Alaska's Beaufort and Chukchi seas hold the most promise, BOEM maps show (Energywire, Jan. 17).
Arctic waters are expensive to exploit because of tough weather conditions, said conservation lobbyist Andy Kerr. The Gulf of Mexico offers a more favorable environment for exploration and production, but that didn't stop the Deepwater Horizon disaster, he added.
Offshore operators have shown limited interest in expanding beyond those high-potential regions, Kerr said.
"Their lack of interest, because of a very likely lack of oil and gas, in much of the offshore Lower 48 will allow Zinke to shrink his expansive proposal and appear to be doing it for environmental reasons," he said.
Attorney Ryan Steen, who testified before the House panel Friday on behalf of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, said ecological concerns could have the effect of blocking efforts to uncover new offshore oil and gas.
Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) asked Steen whether updated seismic tests would reveal greater amounts of oil and gas reserves and whether concerns about the impacts of surveys on marine mammals are a front for blocking those results.
"I believe that is the case," Steen said.
Oceana's Hoskins questioned the Trump administration's move to redo the offshore plan at all, since the current strategy, crafted under former President Obama, is good until 2022.
"It's time for Zinke to change course on this rash and ill-informed proposal," she said.
Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.