Greens regroup as offshore drilling ban appears doomed

By Emma Dumain | 12/17/2021 06:17 AM EST

The Senate's climate and social spending package could exclude permanent bans on offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico — and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is the reason.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) at the Capitol yesterday. Francis Chung/E&E News

The Senate’s climate and social spending package could exclude permanent bans on offshore drilling in the Atlantic, Pacific and eastern Gulf of Mexico — and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is the reason.

It would be the latest major environmental priority Manchin has nixed from the Democrats’ reconciliation package. His opposition to the larger bill caused party leaders to delay its floor consideration until at least January (see related story).

Multiple sources on Capitol Hill and within the environmental advocacy community told E&E News yesterday that Manchin, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, opposed language from the House-passed reconciliation bill, H.R. 5376, that would have established the drilling prohibitions.


That opposition resulted in the provision being stripped from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s draft text currently being circulated among lobbyists and outside groups, a copy of which was obtained by E&E News earlier this week (E&E Daily, Dec. 16).

All this may not be a done deal. A congressional source familiar with negotiations said last night that “the legislative text is not yet final, and conversations will be ongoing about the ultimate inclusion of provisions with it.”

Manchin’s spokesperson declined to comment on the record until the committee text is officially released, along with its Congressional Budget Office cost estimate.

But proponents of the drilling ban weren’t shy yesterday in airing their frustration with their Democratic colleague, who is still negotiating a compromise over a watered-down methane fee. Earlier this year he killed prospects for a clean electricity standard that was the centerpiece of the Democrats’ climate ambitions (Greenwire, Dec. 16).

“The inordinate power one senator has to change legislation that affects the nation and world around climate change is disturbing to say the least,” House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who championed the drilling language on his side of the Capitol, said in an interview.

Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement: “Maybe Joe Manchin missed the oil poisoning the Southern California coast this year. The rest of us know that continued exploitation of our oceans is a death knell for this and future generations.”

A massive oil spill near Orange County, Calif., this fall bolstered calls to include a ban on oil and gas drilling in the reconciliation package.

While parts of the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico are now off limits under a 10-year drilling moratorium instituted last year by then-President Trump, larger swaths of those areas are currently unprotected.

The Pacific coastline, meanwhile, remains exposed.

“This was an opportunity — and I hope still is — to lock in some permanence to allay the fears of communities up and down both of these coasts,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, told E&E News.

“The fossil fuel industry still has way too much sway,” he added. “And for that to be driving policy in the middle of a climate crisis is really unfortunate.”

Counting on Rubio?

Up to this point, environmental activists had been publicly expressing optimism that the House’s offshore drilling bans would be retained in the Senate bill as fights over other climate provisions, like the methane fee and the Clean Electricity Performance Program, took center stage.

Privately, however, they had been hearing rumblings of concern from Manchin’s corner.

Manchin might have hinted where he stood on the issue back in May, when he presided over an Energy and Natural Resources hearing on offshore energy development. In opening remarks, he extolled offshore oil and gas production as crucial for domestic energy capabilities and a major source of revenue. He also reminded colleagues each state benefits from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is funded through dollars generated from drilling in Gulf Coast states.

Still, advocates hope there’s a path forward.

Because Manchin opposed the language rather than it being ruled out of order by the Senate parliamentarian, there remains a chance that even if it doesn’t get back into the base bill, it could be reinstated through the open amendment process once the reconciliation measure hits the floor.

Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who called Manchin “dead wrong” on the drilling issue, said he expected an amendment to be adopted on the Senate floor that would resolve the issue.

But Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who called the ban’s likely exclusion “disappointing but not surprising,” noted a Republican would have to join with Democrats to win the votes on such an amendment, given Manchin wouldn’t likely support restoring a provision he rejected in the committee drafting process.

Democrats and advocates have their eye on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to play that part.

Though no Republican plans to vote for the full reconciliation package, GOP senators will support specific amendments in the marathon “vote-a-rama” that will precede the final vote on the reconciliation bill. Most of these amendments will be partisan “show votes” doomed to fail but designed to score political points.

There was hope in some circles yesterday, however, that Rubio, who has long sponsored stand-alone legislation that would only ban drilling off the Florida coastline and is up for reelection in 2022, would support an amendment to reinstate the trio of drilling prohibitions and send it over the finish line.

But by last night, Rubio had dashed those dreams, saying he would only support an amendment that mirrored his own bill, S. 2468, which would only ban drilling off the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s coast.

“I can’t speak for the other bans; it’s not an issue I’ve necessarily worked on or been in favor of,” he told reporters. “But in Florida we have a long tradition of unanimous, bipartisan support in our state delegation — every single member of our delegation supports it — and that’s why I support it.”

It’s not certain, though, that Democrats would accept a piecemeal fix to the missing legislative language they support. Advocates fighting for the full drilling ban made clear yesterday they don’t plan to let Rubio, or anyone else, off the hook.

“Anything short of voting to restore the protections in the House bill will leave Florida’s beaches at risk of an oil spill,” said Alex Taurel, the conservation program director at the League for Conservation Voters. “Folks in state will know who failed to defend Florida’s economy.”

Reporter Nick Sobczyk contributed.