WASHINGTON (AP) - Environmental advocates urged Congress on Wednesday to reinstate the broad moratorium on offshore oil drilling, but a key congressman said on that issue, "The ship may have already sailed."
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the political reality is that the broad moratorium across 85 percent of the country's Outer Continental Shelf lifted by Congress last fall is unlikely to be reimposed.
But Rahall, who opened the first of three hearings on offshore drilling, said Congress may need to establish protective buffer areas and place certain regions - including some waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts - off limits.
"If we are going to start drilling in new areas offshore we're going to have to be aware of what the trade-offs are ... that it can be done safely," said Rahall. He argued that the "vast majority" of Outer Continental Shelf oil resources are already in federal waters available for leasing.
The hearing came a day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a review of offshore oil and gas development, scrapping a sweeping blueprint for expanded offshore drilling proposed in the Bush administration's final days.
While not ruling out expansion of some offshore drilling, Salazar promised to pursue a new direction in energy development, with greater emphasis on using coastal waters to generate energy from wind, the sun and waves.
At a House hearing, Philippe Cousteau, grandson of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, urged Congress to reinstate the offshore drilling bans that until last fall had been in effect for 25 years in Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters.
"It's absolutely critical for the health of the oceans," said Cousteau, a board member of the advocacy group Ocean Conservancy. "Oil spills still occur."
Actor Ted Danson, founder of the American Oceans Campaign and leader of the advocacy group Oceana, said offshore drilling is "flirting with disaster" because of potential oil spills not only at drilling rigs, but in transporting the oil produced.
Danson said the country should be moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as offshore wind and energy from tidal waves because of the threats of climate change, which he said is another threat to ocean health.
On restoring the broad moratorium, "it may be the ship has already sailed," said Rahall, adding that the "political reality" is that there is broad support for opening some additional offshore waters to oil and gas development.
The issue is, "do we need buffer areas, do we need certain areas off limits?" said Rahall.
Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the House Resources Committee's top Republican, countered that expanded offshore drilling is "about creating good American jobs" and reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil and the OPEC oil cartel.
Hastings argued that new drilling will create thousands of jobs, seeking to link the issue with today's soaring unemployment rate and congressional efforts to revive the economy.
Oil and gas industry experts acknowledge that any new offshore oil development would do little to spur short-term job creation. It would be at least several years before new leases are likely to be issued and another 5 to 7 years before oil would begin to flow from any new discoveries.
The Interior Department estimates there are at least 18 billion barrels of oil in offshore waters that until recently were off limits, about half of that off California. But the extent of such resources is unclear since no exploration or even seismic studies have been conducted in those areas for about 30 years.
The oil industry contends that modern drilling technologies allow environmentally safe offshore oil and gas development. They cite the resilience of deep water drilling rigs during Hurricane Katrina and more recent hurricanes Gustav and Ike in which there were no major oil spills.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)