Fracking quietly expands offshore _lowres

Photo provided by WWL Oil Rig

WASHINGTON — Louisiana’s status as a leading domestic energy producer played a crucial role Wednesday when the U.S. House spent hours debating whether offshore oil and gas drilling should be permanently banned nearly everywhere else.

Supporters of the proposed ban cited the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Opponents of a permanent ban, including prominent Louisiana Republicans, sought to assuage concerns by citing Louisiana as an upstanding model of opportunities that come with offshore energy production.

“When we stop producing energy domestically, we don’t stop using energy,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge.

The Democrat-controlled House ultimately passed a ban of offshore energy production along the eastern side of the Gulf Coast in a 248-180 vote and a ban along the East and West coasts in a 238-189 vote. If successful, the effort would leave the western part of the Gulf Coast, namely Louisiana and Texas, as the only U.S. offshore energy producers.

The permanent extension of the existing moratorium must also be vetted by the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate, where it faces immensely long odds of advancing.

Shortly after the House votes, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy, vowed to block it, arguing the Gulf legislation and two other oil and gas drilling measures would "cause countries with poor environmental standards and higher pollution to dominate production and industry."

"They will increase global emissions and hurt the environment,” Cassidy said.

He added that the legislation could threaten funding Louisiana receives from the federal government for coastal restoration efforts from energy production land leases.

“This package would strip millions of dollars used by Louisiana for coastal restoration and environmental conservation," Cassidy said.

Supporters of the Gulf Coast legislation said it would protect Florida's tourism, fishing industry and environmental quality.

“If you like to drill off the coast of Louisiana or South Carolina, I'd say have at it. But leave my beloved Florida alone,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida. “If drilling off of Florida is the only thing that's going to keep us from having high energy prices and a reliance on foreign energy, I don't know why that hasn't happened yet. Right now we are not drilling off the coast of Florida, and we are energy-dominant in the world.”

Graves and other opponents of the legislation countered that increased domestic energy production would be better for the environment and national security.

“I know this may sound counter-intuitive, but this bill undermines the very objectives that it’s purported to advance,” said Graves, who held up a giant poster with red dots along the Gulf Coast and a hidden title. After pointing out the concentration of dots along Texas and Louisiana, Graves revealed that it was a map of Red snapper landings — not oil and gas rigs.

“It creates a habitat for fisheries,” he said.

He also said relying on oil brought over on tankers from other countries would do more harm to the environment.

“The safest thing you can do is produce it domestically and put it in a pipe," Graves said.

Louisiana, which has four times as many offshore drilling sites than any other coastal state in the U.S., played a near constant role at the forefront of the House debate.

U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-Virginia, was among a group of members who U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, took to a rig off the Louisiana coastline earlier this year.

"I saw firsthand … the great benefits accrued to Louisiana schools, roads and port projects as a result,” Cline said, explaining his opposition to the extensive offshore ban.

Scalise also criticized the legislation as a threat to America's "energy renaissance."

"As we've seen in Louisiana, the energy industry can be an incredible asset to our economy and our beautiful natural resources," he said. "Energy exploration and development provides cheap energy, reliable jobs, and expands our international impact."

On other side, Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Florida, recalled the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and spewed an estimated 130 million gallons of oil into the Gulf off Louisiana’s coast.

“This should have been a huge wake up call to everyone,” said Crist, who was Florida’s governor at the time of the disaster, commonly called the BP oil spill.

The Gulf Coast offshore drilling ban and ban on drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific ocean coastlines are pieces of a three-bill package promoted by Democrats to severely restrict oil drilling on federal lands. Separately, the House is expected on Thursday morning to take up a third bill that would ban drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

How members of the Louisiana delegation voted

For a ban on Gulf offshore drilling along the Florida coast and offshore drilling along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts: Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.

Against: U.S. Reps. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge; Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre; Mike Johnson, R-Shreveport; and Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson.

Did not vote: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto.

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.