Southern governors implore Interior nominee Sally Jewell to drill off their coasts

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 14, 2013 


Sally Jewell, chief executive officer of Recreational Equipment Inc. was nominated to become secretary of the U.S. Interior Department


— The governors of South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia are pushing President Barack Obama’s choice for interior secretary to abandon federal opposition to drilling off the Atlantic Coast, where production has been blocked for decades.

“During your nomination hearings, we will be listening intently to your answers regarding energy exploration off the coasts of our states and hope you will signal your willingness to revise the administration’s current policy to one that is committed to safely harnessing our coast’s vast natural resources,” the three Republican governors wrote in a letter Thursday to nominee Sally Jewell.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for an interview with Jewell, a conservation advocate whom Obama chose to replace Ken Salazar. She’ll soon undergo her confirmation hearings by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

It’s questionable how much the Atlantic drilling issue will factor into her confirmation. Republicans on the committee, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, favor drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. But most of them are from Western states, and they’re more likely to grill Jewell on public land issues closer to their constituents. There’s also the fact that Democrats control the Senate and the committee’s chairman, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, has no problem with Obama’s reluctance to drill in the Atlantic.

“The current leasing plan already includes new areas in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic Ocean, which have been of great interest to the oil industry. So Chairman Wyden isn’t inclined to start second-guessing the Interior Department’s plan at this point,” Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said.

Obama had planned to allow drilling off the East Coast, starting in Virginia, but that changed after the massive 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Interior Department’s plan now excludes any petroleum leasing in Atlantic waters through at least 2017.The president has authorized a federal review to decide whether energy companies may conduct seismic tests to gauge how much oil and gas are under the water.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has introduced a bill seeking to open waters off his state to drilling. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed the bill, and she was among the governors to “implore” Jewell on Thursday to reverse the ban on Atlantic drilling.

Haley didn’t respond to an interview request Thursday. She said last summer that “South Carolina deserves this. South Carolina is doing this for the country.”

Mitchell Colgan, the chairman of the geology department at the College of Charleston, said such talk was just politics.

He said there wasn’t much oil off the coast of South Carolina. And the nation already has a glut of cheap natural gas and doesn’t need more from the Atlantic, he said. The economics don’t work, Colgan said.

“As far as South Carolina is concerned, they can drill all they want but they’re not going to find anything,” he said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates that there are 3.3 billion barrels of oil and 31.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas along the entire Atlantic seabed. That’s just a fraction of the oil that’s estimated to be in the Arctic waters off the Alaska coast, where preliminary drilling efforts began last summer.

There’s a dispute over how much oil and natural gas might be found in the Atlantic, though, and Republican North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory made offshore drilling a significant part of his campaign platform last year.

Virginia has been pushing especially hard, with politicians from both parties in favor of offshore development.

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