Loud backlash, quiet support for offshore plan in key races

By Pamela King, Kellie Lunney, Kristi E. Swartz | 07/17/2018 07:46 AM EDT

When East Coast voters cast their ballots in the congressional races this fall, there’s one sensitive energy issue that may be on their minds: the Trump administration’s proposal to allow oil and gas leasing in nearly all the U.S. outer continental shelf.

Congressional candidates on both sides of the political aisle have taken stances against offshore drilling in their states' waters.

Congressional candidates on both sides of the political aisle have taken stances against offshore drilling in their states' waters. Anita Ritenour/Flickr

When East Coast voters cast their ballots in the congressional races this fall, there’s one sensitive energy issue that may be on their minds.

Competitors in several races for House and Senate seats in Florida, the Carolinas, Virginia and other states are letting voters know where they stand on the Trump administration’s proposal to allow oil and gas leasing in nearly all the U.S. outer continental shelf (Greenwire, Jan. 4). The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposal — expected to be finalized next year — would replace an Obama-era plan that closed all areas but the Gulf of Mexico and a section of Alaska’s Cook Inlet to offshore oil and gas development.

Most governors along the East and West coasts were outraged by the proposal. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has since hinted that several states with limited resource potential would likely be excluded from the plan. But he seems interested in exploring a Mid-Atlantic gas play, and Florida’s western waters are known to hold oil potential (Energywire, April 16).


Zinke controversially pledged to exclude Florida’s waters from new offshore drilling just days after BOEM released the draft five-year plan. It remains unclear whether he will walk back that exemption in later versions of the document.

As in the gubernatorial races, congressional candidates on both sides of the political aisle have taken stances against offshore drilling in their states’ waters (Energywire, May 29). But some GOP contenders have said they would support new exploration and production under the right circumstances.

Republicans who oppose offshore drilling must do more than simply say they are against it, said Craig Auster, political action committee director for the League of Conservation Voters.

"What are they doing to stop their president and his Department of Interior from doing this?" he said.

Here’s a look at where contenders for House and Senate seats in several East Coast races stand on offshore drilling:


In the Florida Senate race, the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, and his challenger, Republican Gov. Rick Scott, are both opposed to drilling off the coast of the Sunshine State.

Auster said LCV recently did an event with Nelson in Tampa to highlight "his strong record" on the environment. On offshore drilling, "you have one who is against it [Nelson], and one [Scott] who has flip-flopped on it," said Auster. Scott’s opposition sparked Zinke’s now-infamous January tweet saying that Florida was "off the table" when it comes to offshore oil and gas drilling.

But Auster said Scott is "trying to greenwash his environmental record by saying he’s against" offshore drilling.

Florida’s congressional Republicans and Democrats consistently have opposed efforts to open up the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the state’s Atlantic seaboard to oil and gas drilling. The eastern Gulf is under a drilling moratorium that expires in 2022.

But that doesn’t mean Florida’s congressional representatives are dead set against opening any area that’s currently off-limits, said House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

"They’re more reasonable than that," said Bishop, who has met with members of the Florida delegation periodically to discuss the issue. "But there are some areas that should remain off limits, and I will agree to that."

The Pentagon warned in a recent report that additional drilling in the eastern Gulf could hinder military testing and training.

"If there is an area that is essential to the military’s need — and that’s the military carve-out — that’s going to be designated by the military, then I’ll obviously be listening to that. And we’re going to take that very seriously," he said.


Georgia is a key state largely because Gov. Nathan Deal (R) has not taken a formal position on the issue other than to say he’s passed along concerns to the congressional delegation.

This leaves plenty of opportunity for environmentalists to press elected officials for an exemption and those pushing for an "all of the above" energy strategy to advocate for exploration off the Peach State’s coast.

Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter (R) pressed BOEM to hold one of its informational sessions along Georgia’s coast, arguing it was necessary for federal regulators to make their case for offshore drilling to the residents and businesses that are actually there.

That didn’t happen — the BOEM meeting was near the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — and Carter remains firm in his support for exploring offshore energy development but doing so while protecting the coast.

"Any energy exploration must be done in a way that does not harm our beautiful coastline. I am committed to working to ensure a positive relationship between increasing our energy independence and protecting our beautiful coasts, marine life, and industries," he said in a statement to E&E News.

Democrat Lisa Ring, who’s seeking Carter’s seat in the House, sums up her energy position succinctly on her campaign website: "No drilling. Period."

Like Carter, Georgia Rep. Karen Handel (R) also took a cautionary approach.

"We need to aggressively pursue all available energy solutions. However, in doing so, we must take into consideration the environmental impact as well as the fact that Georgia’s coast is home to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay," Handel said.

She’s calling for a full assessment of potential impacts of drilling offshore before any additional steps are taken.

Handel’s Democratic opponent will be selected in a runoff election later this month.

The Consumer Energy Alliance as ramped up its campaign to educate elected officials on the importance of a broad energy policy that will include offshore drilling. It says the United States needs enough energy options to ensure the nation isn’t reliant on foreign sources.

This will add jobs, boost economic development and keep prices low at the pump and in the home, the group argues.

Its Campaign for America’s Energy won’t stop at the elections, but reaching out to new elected officials is a focus.

"We want to make sure they are using science and data," not emotion, said Kevin Doyle, executive director of CEA in Florida, in an interview.

Doyle and CEA’s Southeast Executive Director Tim Page visited the Georgia Chamber of Commerce as part of their rounds. Page explained that they were doing their best to emphasize the fact that many people don’t pay attention to what type of fuel makes up their electricity bill — but that customers sometimes have to make a choice between paying that bill and getting prescription medicine.

"This touches everybody," Page said.

The two were headed to walk the halls of the Georgia State Capitol to continue with their message — one that Doyle described as energy agnostic.

"But we feel we have to say ‘yes’ to everything," he said.

South Carolina

After losing the endorsement of several other South Carolina Republicans due to her stance on offshore drilling, Katie Arrington swung back.

"I support the repeal of Barack Obama’s arbitrary restrictions on domestic energy exploration," the GOP candidate, who beat incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford in the Republican primary, wrote in a June 19 statement. "I do not support drilling for oil off of South Carolina’s coast."

At least five Republican coastal mayors have opted to back Arrington’s Democratic opponent, Joe Cunningham, instead, according to recent reporting by the Charleston Post and Courier (Energywire, June 21).

In her statement, Arrington sought to clarify that while she supports expanding the U.S. offshore drilling program, she doesn’t want to bring the industry to her home state.

"I am not opposed to studying the issue, but we didn’t have an oil industry in our state before the Obama ban, and we won’t have one after the Obama ban," she said.

South Carolina’s other coastal district, which includes Myrtle Beach, appears to rest safely in the hands of an offshore drilling opponent, no matter who wins the election.

Incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Rice last month joined Gov. Henry McMaster (R) and two other members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation in a letter to Zinke opposing their state’s inclusion in the offshore plan.

"Our environment is our most precious asset — we must safeguard our natural resources and the communities supported by our coastline," Rice said in a June statement. "I will continue to do everything in my power to protect and grow our coastal economy."

North Carolina

Opposition to the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan is a centerpiece in Democrat Kyle Horton’s quest to unseat Rep. David Rouzer (R) as representative of the Tar Heel State’s southern coast.

"My family tragically lost someone we love in the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and now the Trump Administration is expanding drilling & obliterating safety protections for workers," Horton tweeted on Jan. 4, the day BOEM released its draft five-year plan.

"In Congress, I’ll stand up to those attempts," she continued in a second tweet. "While my opponent puts oil & gas interests ahead of our health, I’ll fight for you."

Rouzer has said he would support leasing in the Atlantic Ocean, as long as drillers adhere to the strictest safety precautions and conduct their activities at least 30 miles off the coast.

In the race to represent the barrier island communities that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Walter Jones runs unopposed.

The Republican congressman has backed legislation that would block Interior from leasing any part of the Mid-Atlantic outer continental shelf to oil and gas developers. Earlier this year, Jones called on BOEM to hold a public meeting on the federal drilling proposal not only in the state’s capital, but also in a coastal town.

"It is vitally important for the federal government to receive the input of citizens who stand to be most impacted by this proposal," he wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to BOEM. "Therefore, I respectfully encourage you to grant the county’s request for a public meeting in Dare County."

Farther inland, other North Carolina congressional candidates are making their opposition known.

The state’s 9th District is gearing up for a heated contest between Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris, who beat out incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) in the primary.

McCready, a solar energy entrepreneur, views conservation as a "moral imperative," which won him the endorsement of the North Carolina LCV.

"Dan McCready knows protecting the environment and the economy must go hand in hand, he lives it in his daily life," Carrie Clark, North Carolina’s LCV executive director, said in a March 14 statement. "Dan understands that we must protect our coast from the potential harm of offshore drilling, and fight to make sure we have clean drinking water for our children and future generations."

Energy hasn’t been a focal point of Harris’ platform, but the Baptist pastor has aligned himself with many of the Trump administration’s priorities, such as building a border wall.


The issue of offshore drilling is surfacing in the House race in Virginia’s 2nd District, which includes Virginia Beach and parts of Norfolk and Hampton.

Republican Rep. Scott Taylor told The Washington Post in January that he was opposed to oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of his state. His challenger, Democrat Elaine Luria, whom LCV has endorsed, also opposes offshore drilling.

So where is Luria’s advantage?

"There’s room for her to talk about his evolving stance on it," Auster said of Taylor, who didn’t take a public position on the issue until the Trump administration unveiled its proposal to open more than 90 percent of federal waters to potential oil and gas drilling.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine has openly supported offshore drilling in the past, but he changed his stance after joining Hillary Clinton’s ticket in the 2016 presidential race, according to a PolitiFact analysis.

"Virginia is well-positioned to be a national leader in offshore energy exploration," Kaine said in a 2013 statement after teaming with Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) on legislation to promote energy production on Virginia’s portion of the outer continental shelf.

Kaine had a different view by the time the Trump administration proposed to expand offshore drilling into Virginia’s waters.

"Drilling would threaten our defense assets in Hampton Roads, and Virginians living near the coast tell me they don’t want it," he said in January. "A small business owner on the Virginia Beach boardwalk asked me to imagine what a BP-like oil spill would do to summer tourism.

"It’s not worth the risk."

Prince William County official Corey Stewart, Kaine’s Republican opponent in the Senate race, includes fossil fuels — as well as solar, nuclear and wind — in his platform to increase U.S. energy independence.

"With massive advances in safety technology over the past decade, I strongly support offshore oil and gas exploration in the Atlantic along with the high-paying jobs, energy independence and increased tax revenues these projects will bring," Stewart said in a statement to E&E News.

One former Virginia lawmaker is encouraging the delegation to stay open to the state’s offshore energy potential.

"They are exploring offshore all over the world," Jim Webb, co-chairman of the American Petroleum Institute’s Explore Offshore coalition and a former Democratic senator, said in an interview with The Hill. "Our technology is good, safety procedures I think have vastly improved, so let’s take a look at what’s out there."