Energy & Environment

Dem senators demand offshore drilling info before Bernhardt confirmation hearing

A group of Senate Democrats are calling on the Interior Department to release more details about its anticipated offshore drilling plan prior to next week's confirmation hearing for acting Secretary David Bernhardt.

The group of 17 Senators on Wednesday sent a letter to Bernhardt asking him to provide them a copy of the latest five-year plan currently being drafted by Interior, known as The 2019-2024 National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program.

Bernhardt is expected to testify in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next Thursday as part of his confirmation hearing. He was nominated formally by President Trump in March to replace former Interior head Ryan Zinke.

"The American public and their elected representatives in Congress deserve to understand your vision for the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) before we consider your nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior," the senators wrote.

The letter was signed by, among others, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). It specifically asked Interior to provide them with prior insight into which coastal areas will be included in the draft plan.

Former Secretary Zinke first announced last spring that he was directing the agency to develop an offshore drilling plan. A majority of state governors and leaders resoundingly came out against the plan.

Since the announcement states have waited anxiously to see whether their concerns have been considered by the federal government, which controls drilling rights three to nine nautical miles offshore.

The plan to expand offshore drilling comes as the Trump administration has beefed up its energy independence push, including strides to make available more public land for oil and gas exploration.

The administration still faces a number of hurdles when it comes to tapping into offshore oil and gas reservoirs, including figuring out where exactly they are. Doing so would likely include seismic testing, which environmentalist and animal advocates have long warned could cause harm to sea animals.

Many coastal communities rejected all plans to drill and to test.

"The Department of the Interior has received many bipartisan requests to remove all planning areas in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as the eastern Gulf of Mexico, from the next draft of the five-year plan," the lawmakers wrote.

"We strongly urge you to indicate which States will or will not be included in the next draft of the five-year plan prior to your nomination hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee."

In addition to details, the senators ask Bernhardt to commit to meeting with the Governors of any states chosen for drilling, and those with coastlines that "may be impacted by a potential oil spill, even if the drilling will not occur directly off the coast of that state."

The lawmakers also asked Bernhardt how Interior would analyze how additional fossil fuel production offshore could impact climate change.

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