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The Energy 202: Industry group says hurricanes bolster case for expanding offshore drilling

With Dino Grandoni


Hurricane season is in full swing — and it's throwing into the spotlight an ongoing debate between industry and environmental groups over expanding offshore drilling.

The National Ocean Industries Association is pointing to hurricanes as a reason the United States should allow offshore drilling in areas beyond the Gulf of Mexico. Because most of the nation’s offshore drilling is concentrated in such a hurricane-prone region, the lobbying group that represents offshore energy companies warns the country is “rolling the dice” with natural disasters, which can jeopardize the country's oil supply if bad weather forces companies to shut down oil production and evacuate oil platforms. 

The group wants the Interior Department to expand oil production into the southeast Atlantic, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and off the coast of California and Alaska as part of the Trump administration's controversial proposal to open most of the nation's outer continental shelf to potential drilling. 

Yet environmental groups are pointing to Florence as the latest evidence this hurricane season that offshore drilling shouldn’t happen anywhere. “As this hurricane is proving, there’s no area off the coast of the U.S. that is immune to hurricanes or storms,” said Athan Manuel, director of the lands protection program for the Sierra Club. Florence was downgraded on Sunday to a tropical depression. Yet Manuel said the risk of oil spills and the fact that there’s no real way to move oil facilities “out of harm’s way” shows “there’s no safe place to drill.”

For its part, NOIA says that dispersing drilling across a broader geographical area will better ensure the country's energy security in the event of a natural disaster. By concentrating drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, “what we’ve done is put all of our oil and natural gas eggs into one basket,” NOIA President Randall Luthi said in an interview. 

NOIA in part blames energy policy, which makes about 94 percent of the U.S. continental shelf off limits to drilling. In January, the Trump administration announced its proposed five-year plan to widely expand drilling in U.S. continental waters. But in April, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told Congress he would scale back that plan, responding to opposition from both Democratic and Republican governors and lawmakers in coastal states. 

The storms exacerbate the drilling limitation, Luthi said, since companies start shutting down their units and evacuating their workers.  Production pauses, depending on the duration, he said, can have a “significant effect on the amount of oil and gas that’s being produced for a period of time.”

Tropical Storm Gordon is barreling toward the Gulf Coast where it is expected to become a hurricane late Sept. 4 and bring high winds and heavy rain. (Video: Reuters)

One such production pause occurred this month, when energy companies began shuttering offshore oil production and evacuating workers from platforms in the Gulf of Mexico as Tropical Storm Gordon approached. Gordon never turned into a hurricane, but during the halt, 54 platforms were evacuated and an estimated 411,583 barrels of oil were shut in, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

During the catastrophic hurricane season in 2017, BSEE estimated that at one point more than 24 percent of oil production and nearly 26 percent of natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico were temporarily shut off during Hurricane Harvey, and during Hurricane Nate, up to 92 percent of the oil production and 77 percent of natural gas production in the region had to be shut off temporarily.

Adding offshore developments in other regions would “certainly lessen the risk of reducing a large amount of oil and gas should a hurricane or two hurricanes come through the Gulf of Mexico,” Luthi said.

Yet Manuel called using hurricane-related risks to urge offshore expansion “preposterous.” “I think they’re really running out of ways to justify oil drilling,” he said.

“From our perspective, extreme weather and hurricanes are going to get worse as climate change impacts the planet,” he added. “And we know what causes climate change: the burning and development of fossil fuels … One way to avoid being impacted by extreme weather is to fight climate change, and we’re not doing that if we expand offshore drilling.”

Diane Hoskins, campaign director for conservation and advocacy group Oceana, said that expanding offshore drilling to new areas would add an onerous step to emergency preparedness ahead of storms such as Florence, when those facilities would need to shut down.

“The idea of adding offshore rigs and all of these related infrastructure required to move, process and pump oil is an entirely additional layer of complexity and danger and risk to coastal communities that no one wants,” she said. She also cited the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, charging that “even without extreme weather and hurricanes, offshore drilling is inherently dirty and dangerous.”

But Luthi said there has been a notable improvement in storm safety procedures for offshore facilities. He said there have been very few spills because of storms and no injuries or deaths at offshore facilities since Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005. Following the 2017 hurricane season, NOIA says there was no reported damage to offshore facilities and no oil spills or natural gas leaks because of storms.

For now, Luthi said it’s “a guess” as to whether this or any administration moves forward with plans to expand offshore drilling.  “Certainly, the Trump administration has talked about adding new areas and actually proposed the largest addition in basically in our nation’s history. So we’re hoping even as you scale that down … that that still means an overall increase in areas,” he said.

Oceana’s Hoskins suggested a better alternative for avoiding setbacks in energy production is to increase renewable energy sources, such as wind energy. During extreme storms, however, wind turbines may also have to shut down.

“We absolutely should be mitigating the risk from frequent storms to our energy security and energy future, but it’s absurd to think that we should do that with offshore drilling,” she said. “More drilling combined with more extreme weather and hurricanes is a predictable recipe for disaster.”

Video from a drone camera shows flooding in Lumberton, N.C., on Sept. 16, after Florence swept through the area. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

— The latest on Florence: At least 17 deaths have been reported in connection with Florence, which was downgraded on Sunday to a tropical depression, two days after it made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane on Friday. But what’s still to come may include life-threatening landslides and devastating flooding “as the storm’s remnants move into the mountains in the middle of the states and then up into southwestern Virginia,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. The system is still dumping tremendous amounts of rainfall over North Carolina and will continue to spread inland. “By Monday and Tuesday, the torrents are expected to lift north through West Virginia and western Virginia before finally exiting the Northeast by Wednesday.” 

Virtual islands surrounded by floodwater: In some parts of the Carolinas, floodwaters were so widespread that communities turned into virtual islands over the weekend, The Post’s Rachel Siegel, Patricia Sullivan, Steven Mufson and Joel Achenbach report. “More than 600 roads are closed in North Carolina, and the state’s Department of Transportation said motorists should avoid the state altogether,” they write. “Interstate 95, a crucial East Coast artery, is blocked in both directions in Lumberton, N.C., where the Lumber River on Sunday was already 5 feet above ‘major’ flood stage … Wilmington residents are coping with what amounts to island living. There’s virtually no way in or out of the city. Interstate 40, the biggest highway leading here, is flooded in many places.”

The Post followed Aaron Sutton as he visited his home in Kinston, N.C., on Sept. 16, and saw the damage wrought by Florence for the first time. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The worst is not over: Officials in North Carolina aimed to warn residents of the deadly conditions from Florence that “despite weaker-than-expected winds, is poised to cause historic flooding and devastation for many days across much of the region,” The Post’s Scott Wilson, Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Kevin Sullivan and Patricia Sullivan report. “Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and other officials repeatedly warned Saturday that although people might think the worst of the storm is over, the volume of rainwater it will drop in the coming days will cause flooding not seen in a generation — if ever.”

An indescribable amount of water: “Florence’s sheer volume of water, much of it sucked up during its slow journey over warmer-than-usual Atlantic water, has left scientists sputtering for adequate descriptions,” they report. And as of preliminary reports on Saturday, Florence broke a record in North Carolina for the most amount of rain in a single storm, surpassing a 1999 record of 24.06 inches for Hurricane Floyd with at least 30 inches of rain, a total which has continued to rise in the day or so since, The Post’s Brady Dennis and Angela Fritz adds. “A citizen weather observer posted a total of 30.58 inches of rain in Swansboro, which is in Onslow County. If verified, the amount would be a state record for a tropical storm or hurricane and would shatter the old record."

The Washington area dodged a bullet: With Florence making landfall Friday 350 miles to the south, the storm mostly brought “moderate breezes and very spotty showers through the area,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. But the storm’s remnants could come back to bring stormy weather to Washington this week.

The Post followed a swift water rescue team in Jacksonville, N.C., in the early hours of Sept. 14, around the time Hurricane Florence made landfall. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

More in Florence-related news: 

  • Federal officials warn of environmental hazards: In a Sunday teleconference, federal officials warned of various hazards spawned from Florence, The Post’s Joel Achenbach reports, including a warning to “avoid contact with floodwaters” if possible, said Reggie Cheatham, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Emergency Management. Cheatham also said there was a spill of 2,000 cubic yards of coal ash from a storage pond at a closed Duke Energy plant in Wilmington, N.C. In a Saturday statement, Duke Energy said the company “does not believe this incident poses a risk to public health or the environment."
  • Other toxic sites under watch: Meanwhile, the EPA is monitoring 41 hazardous Superfund sites that could be affected by Florence, the Associated Press reported over the weekend. “EPA spokesman John Konkus said the agency is listening for any word of oil or hazardous substance spills from first responders, media reports and state and local emergency command posts."
  • “Presidential alert” coming to your phone this week: On Thursday, FEMA is set to test an emergency message system to warn people about national emergencies, CNN reports. The “Presidential Alert,” which will be sent to a majority of cellphone users, will show up as a message from President Trump that reads “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.” “You can expect to see the alert pop up on your phone at 2:18 p.m. ET so long as you have your phone turned on, are within range of a cell tower, and if your wireless provider is part of the WEA system,” CNN reports.
  • Coverage gaps: The aftermath of the storm is likely to expose that many homeowners in the Carolinas are lacking flood insurance, per the AP, which reports that nationwide, there were about 5.1 million active flood insurance policies at the end of July. “South Carolina is the second-highest insured state for flooding, with roughly 65 percent of properties in flood hazard areas insured. But in North Carolina, where forecasters say the storm might bring the most destructive round of flooding in state history, flood coverage is less common, with only 35 percent of at-risk properties insured.”


— “NO WAY": Over the weekend, President Trump doubled down on his remarks casting doubt on a study from George Washington University that estimated there were nearly 3,000 "excess deaths" in Puerto Rico in the six months following Hurricane Maria. After falsely accusing Democrats last week of inflating the numbers to make him look bad, the president tweeted again on Friday evening, saying that the numbers increased “like magic.”

The Post’s Amy B Wang breaks down why that is not the case here.

— FEMA chief echoes Trump on death toll doubt: In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” William “Brock” Long said death toll numbers in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Maria have been “all over the place” and said it’s “hard to tell what’s accurate and what’s not.” And during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Long said he believed the president was being “taken out of context” for his remarks about the death toll in Puerto Rico. “You might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on, because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they went through an intersection where the stoplights weren’t working,” Long said. “Spousal abuse goes through the roof. You can’t blame spousal abuse after a disaster on anybody.”

Off-screen, Long fights for his job: The FEMA head has been resisting a push from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to replace him over an internal investigation over the alleged misuse of government vehicles, an internal quarrel that has surfaced as the agency deals with Florence. One major concern is that there is no one on hand to replace him if he’s ousted. “The prospect of Long’s dismissal has alarmed current and former staff at FEMA and DHS, and it has captured the attention of officials on Capitol Hill, who note that the agency’s No. 2 position has been vacant for nearly two years and that Trump’s current nominee, Peter Gaynor, still awaits Senate confirmation,” The Post’s William Wan and Nick Miroff report.

— “You can’t mistreat us”: Volunteers who have worked at the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park are pushing back on what they describe as a “hostile and unsafe work environment,” The Post’s Marissa J. Lang reports. The park has one of the largest volunteer programs within the National Park Service, a service that has become increasingly necessary as a result of shrinking budget. “But in recent months, those programs have lost key leaders and participants because of tension between the park and some of its most active volunteers. These departures have hurt programs and made the park less safe for visitors, several volunteers said,” Lang writes.

— Can someone pick up a 747? A partially assembled Boeing 747 was left by festival-goers in the Black Rock Desert two weeks after the Burning Man event there, an annual festival usually prides itself of its leave-no-trace philosophy.  A Bureau of Land Management official told the Reno Gazette Journal that "its legal status is in trespass with unauthorized use." Its builder, Ken Feldman, agrees his art project is absurd. "There’s absolutely no reason to do it and that’s all the reason to do it.”


— Massachusetts town struggles after natural gas explosion: After 80 natural gas explosions and subsequent fires sparked across the Merrimack Valley north of Boston, there were 8,600 homes without gas or power, The Post’s Frances Stead Sellers, Karen Weintraub and Gabe Souza report. “Officials said each house must be inspected before power can be restored, as any gas leaks or buildup of gas inside homes could prove deadly. By Sunday morning, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and public safety officials gave residents of Andover, North Andover and Lawrence the green light to return home, NBC News reports.



  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds an oversight hearing on leasing in the National Park System.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard holds a hearing on ocean resource conflicts on Tuesday.
  • The United States Energy Association holds the U.S.-China Oil and Gas Industry Forum on Tuesday.
  • The German Marshall Fund holds a roundtable on the digital energy nexus on Thursday.
  • National Journal hosts a discussion on the changing energy grid on Thursday.
  • The Heritage Foundation holds an event on “The Fuel Cell Corporate Scandal in Delaware” on Friday.

—Mid-broadcast evacuation:  In the middle of a live broadcast for a local North Carolina television station, WCTI, the chief meteorologist is seen handing off the broadcast to a sister station before leaving the set to evacuate the building, The Post's Eli Rosenberg reports