AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has joined a coalition of governors supporting offshore drilling and exploration for oil and natural gas.
The Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition announced Thursday that LePage had become the first governor from the Northeast to join the group. The coalition receives support from the Consumer Energy Alliance, a Houston nonprofit formed in 2006.
CEA represents over 200 corporate interests, including oil companies such as Shell, Chevron and BP, and has received significant funding from the American Petroleum Institute, the American Gas Alliance and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, according to its 2011 and 2012 tax records.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said Thursday that the governor “believes we must secure energy independence and he is particularly interested in the exploration of natural gas.”
She added, “We’ve got to move toward a low-carbon energy future. He believes natural gas is a good choice and it can play an important role in lowering Maine’s energy costs, particularly heating costs for Mainers.”
The LePage administration has not announced specific initiatives related to the offshore drilling of oil and natural gas. However, the coalition that LePage joined Thursday has been a leading advocate in encouraging the Obama administration to open portions of the Atlantic coast to drilling.
POTENTIAL FOR DRILLING OFF MAINE
On Jan. 27, the Obama administration agreed when the Department of the Interior announced the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program, which includes 14 potential lease sales for drilling in eight planning areas, including 10 in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the mid- and south Atlantic.
The Gulf of Maine is not in the Obama administration’s planning area. However, Richard Charter, a senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation, a national organization that opposes offshore drilling, said the governor’s move to join the coalition could embolden the oil and natural gas industry to again target a region it has long coveted.
“This is a dangerous path for the governor to be following if anyone cares about the Gulf of Maine,” said Charter, who has worked to oppose offshore drilling for 35 years.
Charter said the Obama administration’s lease project is in its infancy, meaning it’s possible that it could be changed or expanded if a governor supported it. He noted that the U.S. House of Representatives passed several bills in the last session that would have allowed governors to request entry into the lease program for their states. Those proposals failed in the Senate, which was controlled by Democrats at the time, but they could be revived now that Republicans control both houses of Congress.
“What a governor advocates for his or her coastal waters absolutely has an effect on the (White House) as to where they consider drilling or an effect on the Congress,” said Charter. He noted that one of the reasons the North Atlantic and Pacific regions were exempted from the Obama administration’s lease project is because officials in those states had united to oppose offshore drilling.
PRESSING FOR EXPANDED ACCESS
Environmentalists have fought to limit offshore oil exploration and drilling because of the use of seismic testing, in which explosives are detonated to locate oil and gas deposits, as well as the threat of widespread damage from spills. The signature catastrophe in offshore drilling has been the Deepwater Horizon well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The largest marine oil spill in the nation’s history – the blowout released an estimated 4.1 million barrels of crude into the gulf – continues to have environmental impacts. At a conference on the spill’s effects this week in Houston, researchers presented data showing that marine life was killed throughout a 1,500-square-mile area, affecting whales and other creatures, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The Obama administration’s announcement in January was considered a victory for the governors’ coalition. In November, the Center for Public Integrity reported that governors in the coalition had met directly with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to convince her to expand offshore drilling.
It’s unclear if LePage’s move to join the coalition will lead to his advocacy for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Maine. However, Charter said it made sense that the coalition would seek to recruit new members.
“They are highly motivated,” he said.
JOB CREATION, ENERGY SECURITY
Data from the Institute on Money in State Politics shows that governors in the coalition, including its founder, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have benefited from contributions from the oil and gas industry.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, chairman of the coalition and a former executive with Duke Energy, sent a statement defending the group’s advocacy for offshore drilling.
“Responsible exploration and development of oil and gas reserves off our coast would create thousands of good-paying jobs, spur activity in a host of associated industries, generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and move America closer to energy independence,” he said.
In a news release, McCrory said the addition of LePage “broadens the coalition’s geographic representation.” He added, “I look forward to having a new voice and perspective at the table as we continue to push for responsibly expanding the use of our offshore energy resources.”
LePage joins the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia as members of the coalition.
“I’m pleased to join the OCS Governors Coalition and eager to get to work,” LePage said in a written statement. “Safe, responsible development of our offshore energy resources will create jobs, boost our economy and enhance our national energy security.”
DO FISHING, TOURISM, DRILLING MIX?
LePage voiced support for offshore oil drilling during the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. He was heavily criticized for that by environmental groups and his opponents in the election.
Dylan Voorhees, the clean energy and global warming director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said it was “fitting and ironic” that the governor would support offshore drilling. Voorhees noted that the LePage administration has worked hard to oppose renewable energy development in Maine, including its efforts in 2013 to scuttle an offshore wind project by the Norwegian company Statoil.
“Now he’s working with a group that wants to do offshore oil and gas,” he said. “It’s absurd.”
Voorhees said Maine public officials had historically opposed any effort that would lead to offshore drilling. He’s hoping that the tradition will continue in spite of LePage.
“Historically it’s been a non-starter, and for good reasons,” he said. “Our economy is based on fisheries and tourism, all of which is incompatible with offshore oil drilling. … I would like to think (drilling) is an unlikely scenario.”