WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee still held a hearing on oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday morning, despite a government shutdown that paralyzed many other aspects of the federal government.
The hearing was on proposed legislation that would approve of an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico on development of oil and gas reserves that cross the international maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mexico. There's currently a moratorium on drilling in the Western Gap portion of the Gulf, and this agreement would set the standards for both U.S. and Mexican development in this area. Officials from both countries have already signed off on the agreement, but it needs Senate approval.
The current moratorium on drilling in that region will expire on Jan. 17, 2014. If it does, there will be no protections on how drilling proceeds in the region, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said at Tuesday's hearing. "If the moratorium expires, and it's first come, first served, and we don't have the kind of rules we're talking about here today," Wyden said, "basically you can go your own way with respect to drilling in the Gap."
Wyden and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) were the only two senators in attendance for the full meeting. Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.) stopped in for part of the hearing, which featured testimony from Carlos Pascual, the State Department's special envoy for international energy affairs, and Tommy Beaudreau, the acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management at the Department of Interior.
"I think it's important to know that on this first morning of government shutdown, we're talking about how we as a nation move forward toward energy independence, making sure we have environmental frameworks in place, safety frameworks in place," Murkowski said. "I appreciate the fact that we're continuing to do what the people sent us to do."
Jacqueline Savitz, vice president at the environmental group Oceana, also testified, arguing that environmental and safety standards in the agreement are not strong enough. She noted that Congress has not passed new laws to strengthen regulation of offshore drilling in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute testified in support of the legislation authorizing the agreement.
The hearing continued even as the government shutdown furloughed some of workers involved in the regulation of offshore drilling. At the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, 340 of its 772 staff are considered exempt from the shutdown, including those dealing with permitting and inspections. But others who play important roles in offshore were kept home.
"All of BSEE's permitting personnel and personnel involved in inspections are excepted, so permitting will continue, inspections will continue. Environmental reviews, on the other hand, will be slowed," Beaudreau told reporters after the hearing. "So in the near-term, I don't anticipate immediate effects on pace of permitting. But in the longer-term, there could be. I hope this all gets resolved quickly."
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