Pentagon warns against offshore drilling in eastern Gulf of Mexico

Pentagon warns against offshore drilling in eastern Gulf of Mexico

Offshore oil and natural gas drilling in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico would likely be incompatible with military training and testing, the Pentagon is warning lawmakers.

In a report sent this week to a pair of House committees, the Defense Department’s Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin called the eastern Gulf “irreplaceable,” and said that any drilling there would need significant restrictions in order to not disturb military operations.

The Navy and Air Force use the eastern Gulf to test laser weapons, long-range strike weapons, new vessels and mine warfare, among other activities, and drilling rigs could hamper operations.

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The eastern Gulf, the report said, “is an irreplaceable national asset used by [the Department of Defense] DOD to develop and maintain the readiness of our combat forces, and is critical to achieving the objectives contained in the National Defense Strategy.”

“Simply stated, if oil and gas development were to extend east of the [Military Mission Line], without sufficient surface limiting stipulations and/or oil and gas activity restrictions mutually agreed by the DOD and [Department of the Interior], military flexibility in the region would be lost and test and training activities would be severely affected,” it stated.

The report is likely to provide significant fodder to Florida leaders, Democrats and others who want to keep the eastern Gulf closed to oil and gas drilling.

Congress has blocked drilling until 2022 in a swath of the Gulf that is slightly larger than everything east of the Military Mission Line, a line of longitude that runs through Florida’s panhandle.

But in an aggressive offshore drilling plan proposed in January, the Trump administration considered allowing companies to lease drilling rights in that area in 2023 and 2024.

Days after the plan came out, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Science Committee hits EPA with subpoenas | California sues EPA over Trump revoking emissions waiver | Interior disbands board that floated privatization at national parks Interior disbands advisory board that floated privatization at national parks Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE reversed course and pledged that waters near Florida would not have drilling rigs, a promise he reiterated Thursday to a Senate subcommittee.

“I'm committed to … no new oil and gas platforms off the coast of Florida,” Zinke said, though he has not specified how far into the Gulf the prohibition would extend.

Military activities have long been the driving force behind the ban on eastern Gulf drilling. In addition to the air, water surface and subsurface uses of the Gulf, numerous Navy and Air Force facilities are on or near Florida’s coast.

The National Offshore Industries Association saw a positive side to Thursday’s report for drillers, arguing that it leaves the door open to allowing drilling in some areas and in some ways that were not available previously.

“The report shows there is a lot of ocean out there and while there will be devils in the details, the overall message from the Pentagon should be interpreted as cooperation and coordination,” said Randall Luthi, the group’s president. “In addition, as companies are allowed to explore and evaluate oil and natural gas plays, it is likely that areas of high potential will be more clearly defined and thus allow for additional military operations.”

The American Petroleum Institute’s takeaway from the report is that federal officials can find ways for drilling to expand without harming the military.

“Military training operations and domestic energy production are critical components of our national security. This new report on the Eastern Gulf of Mexico confirms that continued collaboration between the Department of Defense and Interior will enable the successful coexistence of continued military training and expanded American oil production,” Erik Milito, the oil group’s head of upstream operations, said in a statement.

Drillers have long seen the eastern Gulf as their No. 1 prospect for new drilling areas, since they have a good understanding of the oil and gas potential there, as well as the infrastructure, equipment and staff nearby.