WASHINGTON - Environmental advocates urged Congress yesterday to reinstate the broad moratorium on offshore oil drilling, but a key congressman said on that issue, "The ship may have already sailed."
Representative Nick Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the political reality is that the broad moratorium across 85 percent of the country's Outer Continental Shelf lifted by Congress last fall is unlikely to be reimposed.
But Rahall said Congress may need to establish protective buffer areas and place certain regions - including some waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts - off limits.
"If we are going to start drilling in new areas offshore we're going to have to be aware of what the trade-offs are . . . that it can be done safely," said Rahall. He argued that the "vast majority" of Outer Continental Shelf oil resources are already in federal waters available for leasing.
The hearing came a day after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered a review of offshore oil and gas development, scrapping a sweeping blueprint for expanded offshore drilling proposed in the Bush administration's final days.
While not ruling out expansion of some offshore drilling, Salazar promised to pursue a new direction in energy development, with greater emphasis on using coastal waters to generate energy from wind, the sun, and waves.
At a House hearing, Philippe Cousteau, grandson of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, urged Congress to reinstate the offshore drilling bans that until last fall had been in effect for 25 years in Atlantic and Pacific coastal waters.
"It's absolutely critical for the health of the oceans," said Cousteau, a board member of the advocacy group Ocean Conservancy. "Oil spills still occur."
On restoring the broad moratorium, "it may be the ship has already sailed," said Rahall, adding that the "political reality" is that there is broad support for opening some additional offshore waters to oil and gas development.
Representative Doc Hastings of Washington, the House Resources Committee's top Republican, countered that expanded offshore drilling is "about creating good American jobs" and reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil.