OCEANS:

Lawmakers eye 'zoning' for new offshore energy development

Key House lawmakers are eyeing a new system of ocean "zoning" as one way to safeguard marine resources as they seek to expand offshore energy development.

Senior Natural Resources Committee members said yesterday that any new energy legislation this year should include requirements for the government to develop comprehensive plans for the ocean -- plans that could designate certain areas of the sea for energy development and set aside others for special protection.

At issue is how to deal with expanding demands for energy development in the outer continental shelf (OCS). After Congress lifted a moratorium on offshore drilling last year, some lawmakers want to put a new system of zoning, or "marine spatial planning," in place before developers rush to site oil, wind or wave energy development offshore.

"In order to make responsible energy development decisions in the OCS, we need to know not only where the greatest energy resources are, but also where the most critical fisheries and marine mammal habitats are, where other important ecologically sensitive areas are located, and the current uses of the ocean areas in question," said Del. Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), chairwoman of the Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee.

If successful, advocates say the plans could identify and protect special marine resources while providing more certainty to energy developers who want to work offshore. Otherwise, energy development companies could go through years of planning and development for an area where regulators or the public later decide they do not want any development.

Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee, said energy legislation should include a "comprehensive planning process" that brings stakeholders together to site areas for oil and gas drilling, wind energy and wave energy. "I believe there are large resources out there that we can develop cleanly and safely, and for the benefit of all Americans," Costa said. "But I also believe there are areas that are not appropriate for oil and gas development."

The two subcommittees vetted the idea at a hearing yesterday that also marked the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Bordallo said the plans could help safeguard key marine resources as new offshore development begins -- noting that reinstating the moratorium on offshore drilling is not an option, given the administration's plans to make drilling part of a broader energy strategy.

Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) also noted a need for planning, telling reporters there is a need to delineate areas that will not be open to leasing, while reiterating that there will not be an effort to fully reinstate offshore drilling bans.

Efforts to create maps and plans for development in the sea could prove complicated. Republicans on the panel questioned whether the zoning would work. "Is it really a good idea to zone before we know where all the oil and gas is?" said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

Some states where officials are already trying to develop plans for states waters have run into problems in their attempts to chart critical fisheries, marine mammal habitats and energy resources. Ian Bowles, secretary of Massachusetts's executive office of energy and environmental affairs, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not currently have all of the information needed to create the plans.

"There are big data gaps," Bowles said. "NOAA doesn't do this for a living."

But marine experts said that with federal assistance and directives the plans should be able to be developed. For example, Australia developed a massive plan for marine waters around the Great Barrier Reef in a manner of two years.

"Dealing with the ocean is just a different kind of animal than zoning on land, and it's going to require a different kind of dexterity," said Thomas Kitsos of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative. "But it's doable and would provide certainty."

Bowles recommended that some of the revenues from offshore energy development should go toward funding development of the plans. And Kitsos called for a White House ocean adviser to oversee the process.

The hearing came as Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) introduced a bill yesterday that would give money to states to survey their coastlines for suitable sites for renewable energy.

Bristol Bay and the Arctic

Energy development plans are of particular concern to commercial fishers working in Alaska's Bristol Bay, a rich fishing ground where the Minerals Management Service has scheduled a lease sale for 2011. Fishers in the area want it to be set aside and no energy development allowed.

"I'm terrified," Keith Colburn, a commercial crab fisher in the Bristol Bay and star of the Discovery Channel series "Deadliest Catch," told the panel yesterday. "I've seen the crab stock completely disappear with the exploration and seismic testing, and that's just stage one."

A group of other Bristol Bay fishers traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to ask lawmakers to take the area out of the drilling program and place special protections for the region.

The bay is not the only Arctic region under scrutiny. Nearly 70 House Democrats -- including several committee chairmen -- asked President Obama yesterday to implement "science-based precautionary management" for Arctic regions they say are threatened by oil and gas development and climate change.

The lawmakers, including Rahall and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), sent a letter yesterday expressing concern with development regions including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Teshekpuk Lake region of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Comprehensive bill?

Yesterday's hearing was the committee's sixth this year on offshore energy policy. But Rahall told reporters that he is not certain the hearings will lead to comprehensive legislation from his panel.

"It is not definitely headed toward a piece of legislation. Rather we want to be prepared if asked by the Obama administration or our own leadership, to offer our proposals for an energy bill, than we want to be prepared to do that," he said.

Rahall said his committee does not plan to add measures to the energy and climate bill that Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) plans to mark up by Memorial Day.

Senior reporter Ben Geman contributed.