Governors' Big Oil-assisted lobbying pays off in Obama's Atlantic drilling plan

The areas in the lower 48 states where the Obama administration has proposed offshore drilling lease sales from 2017 to 2022. (Click on the map to see a larger version. For Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maps of other leasing areas, click here.)

The Obama administration released its draft five-year plan for oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf this week -- and for the first time it includes waters off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the proposal is "a key part of the President's efforts to support American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign oil." But environmental advocates blasted it for putting coastal ecosystems and economies at risk.

"Commercial fishing, tourism and recreation economies would suffer from routine oil leaks as well as the looming risk of a Deepwater Horizon-like oil disaster stretching along the East Coast," said Jacqueline Savitz, U.S. vice president of conservation group Oceana. "It's not something people on the coast want to experience."

A single Atlantic lease sale is proposed for a part of the mid- and South Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf. It calls for a 50-mile coastal buffer to minimize conflicts with other uses such as offshore wind development, commercial and recreational fishing, Department of Defense and NASA activities, and wildlife habitat.

The administration proposes a total of 14 offshore lease sales from 2017 to 2022. Ten of those are in the Gulf of Mexico, already one of the world's most productive basins and one hit hard ecologically by the BP oil disaster, other significant spills and chronic leaks. Three others are in the Arctic, where President Obama also withdrew areas from future leasing due to subsistence use by Alaska Natives and for their "unique and sensitive environmental resources. "

The Eastern Gulf, where a congressional moratorium on drilling remains in place until 2022, was not included in the draft leasing proposal. Neither was the Pacific, with the administration citing Pacific Coast states' long-standing opposition to offshore oil and gas development.

But Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, North Carolina's Pat McCrory and South Carolina's Nikki Haley lobbied to open their coasts to drilling as members of the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition (OCSGC), along with Alabama's Robert Bentley, Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Mississippi's Phil Bryant. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was also a member of the group but left office last week. All are Republicans except for McAuliffe, former chair of the Democratic National Committee.

McCrory -- a former Duke Energy executive whose gubernatorial campaigns have received over $229,000 in contributions from oil and gas interests, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics -- chairs the OCSGC. Last February, he and McAuliffe, Bentley and Bryant met with Jewell in Washington, D.C. to ask her to endorse Atlantic drilling. The meeting was part of a three-year campaign by OCSGC to win administration approval for expanded drilling, not only in the Atlantic but also the Eastern Gulf and the Arctic.

Following Tuesday's announcement proposing the Atlantic lease sale, McCrory released an OCSGC statement thanking Jewell for "taking a step in the right direction" but complaining that the 50-mile buffer "unnecessarily limits the opportunity for further examination of the resource potential" and that "other resource-rich areas remain under lock and key by the Obama administration."

McCrory's statement on the Obama leasing proposal echoed the industry's message that the plan to open up Atlantic was a good step forward but that the president should have gone further.

Big Oil, governors joined forces to promote offshore drilling

The governors' pro-drilling campaign had significant help from Big Oil: A recent Center for Public Integrity (CPI) investigation found the OCSGC has a close relationship with HBW Resources, an energy lobbying firm acting on behalf of the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), an oil industry-funded advocacy group.

CPI reviewed thousands of pages of documents obtained through public records requests and discovered that "much of the governors coalition work has been carried out by HBW Resources and CEA, a group that's channeled millions in corporate funding to become a leading advocate at the state level for drilling."

CPI likens the governors' coalition to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a controversial group that brings together conservative state lawmakers and private-sector representatives to draft business-friendly legislation. Both ALEC and the OCSGC "allow powerful corporate interests to gain a direct line to state policy makers not available to common citizens or other stakeholders," CPI writes, "all under the banner of a generic advocacy organization." In fact, CEA is actively involved in ALEC.

And the OCSGC is just one of many tools the oil and gas industry uses to influence policymaking in Washington. Among the others, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' database:

* Campaign contributions: In the 2014 election cycle, the industry contributed over $29.5 million to the campaigns of congressional candidates. In the 2012 election cycle, it contributed about $8 million to presidential campaigns alone. While most of that went to Republican nominee Mitt Romney, President Obama's campaign received over $828,000 from oil and gas interests.

* Lobbying: In 2014, the oil and gas industry spent over $140 million on federal lobbying. It spent about the same amount every year going back to 2009, when it spent even more at well over $170 million.

* Outside spending: After the U.S. Supreme Court loosened restrictions on political money in its 2010 Citizens United decision, spending by outside groups officially unaffiliated with campaigns or parties skyrocketed -- including outside spending by the oil and gas industry, which jumped from just over $2.5 million in 2010 to over $14.6 million in 2014.

The oil and gas industry also takes advantage of the revolving door between industry and government. Of the 763 lobbyists the oil and gas industry employed to lobby Congress and federal agencies in 2013, 60 percent were "revolving door" personnel, including former members of Congress and congressional staff, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. Early in her career, Jewell herself worked for several years as an engineer in the oil fields of Oklahoma with Mobil, which merged with Exxon in 1999.

Gearing up for a fight

At the same time the governors and Big Oil were pushing their pro-drilling agenda, Oceana and other groups were organizing grassroots opposition in the coastal communities that would be most directly affected by offshore oil and gas development.

So far, 29 communities along the East Coast from Florida to Maine have passed resolutions opposing or expressing concern about seismic testing in the Atlantic. A first step toward drilling, the practice involves using dynamite-like blasts to detect offshore oil and gas deposits and can cause harm to ocean life. Two-hundred local elected officials and more than 60 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have also taken positions against seismic testing.

Opposition to offshore oil and gas exploration is particularly strong in OCSGC Chair McCrory's North Carolina, where 10 coastal communities have expressed official concern about seismic testing, and where last January hundreds of angry residents of Kure Beach packed a town council meeting where they pounded on the walls and booed in protest against Mayor Dean Lambeth's decision to sign an industry-penned letter endorsing seismic testing.

Despite the widespread concern about offshore drilling among coastal residents, the Obama administration approved seismic testing for the Atlantic last July. But as the fight against oil and gas development on the East Coast enters the next stage with this week's lease announcement, the voices of opposition are likely to grow louder. Jewell has said the draft is not final and proposed lease sales could be dropped based on new science, information and public comment.

"We cannot let Washington prioritize the bottom line of multinational corporations over local people, homes, and economies," said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. "Everyone who cares about our coastal communities needs to call on Interior Secretary Jewell, as well as our elected representatives, to protect our coasts and remove the Southeast from the five-year leasing plan."

The draft proposal and the Notice of Intent to Develop a Draft Environmental Impact Statement will be available for public comment for 60 days beginning Jan. 28. For information on submitting comments, click here. Comments will also be collected at a series of public meetings scheduled for February and March in 20 cities around the country including Norfolk, Va., Wilmington, N.C. and Charleston, S.C.

Meanwhile, Oil Change International, an advocacy group that calls for shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy, is collecting signatures on a petition urging President Obama not to open new areas to offshore oil and drilling because of the risk of worsening climate disruption, which he discussed in last week's State of the Union Address. A study published last month in the science journal Nature found most fossil fuel deposits worldwide must remain in the ground in order to avoid a catastrophic global temperature rise.