Oct. 12 (UPI) -- An offshore drilling act critics said was "wish list" legislation for the oil and gas industry was hailed as a strategic win by House Republican leadership.
The House Natural Resources Energy and Mineral subcommittee heard testimony Wednesday on the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act, or ASTRO. The measure would limit the presidential authority to put parts of the Outer Continental Shelf off limits to oil and gas drillers and give the Interior Department the authority to move ahead with new lease sales "as soon as practicable," but no later than a year after the announcement of intent.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said the offshore oil and gas industry is vital for U.S. economic success, generating "billions of dollars" in revenue and creating "millions" of direct and indirect jobs in the country.
"It is critical that we maintain and increase access to offshore exploration and production to improve upon these trends," he said in a statement.
The committee said that, under former President Barack Obama, more than 90 percent of U.S. territorial waters were off limits to drillers. The Republican-led committee said opening up more areas to drillers could create more than 800,000 new jobs and generate $200 billion in revenue.
When the committee rolled out its agenda last week, a spokesman for offshore advocacy group Oceana told UPI the ASTRO Act is "the kitchen sink of the oil industry's wish list." After the hearing, Ocean campaign director Diane Hoskins said the bill was extreme.
"This is a clear attempt by a few in Congress to provide massive giveaways to special interests in the oil and gas industry," she said in a statement emailed to UPI. "With an oil surplus and gasoline prices near recent historic lows, it makes absolutely no sense to put our coastal communities and state economies at risk from more drilling."
Apart from expanding access to drillers, the ASTRO Act would recombine the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The BSEE was set up in response to failures with the former federal Minerals Management Service in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
"I think such a recombination is not just a profoundly bad idea that would be unnecessarily disruptive for the agencies and the industry and for which no clear case has been made, but it is also a dangerous idea that would significantly raise the risk of a catastrophic offshore accident," Michael Bromwich, the director of the BOEM at the time of 2010 spill, testified.
The federal government estimates about 90 billion barrels of oil have yet to be discovered in U.S. territorial waters. Erik Milito, the director of industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, testified that unplanned supply disruptions from the global market, meanwhile, can sometimes put more than 3 million barrels per day off limits, which is about three times what North Dakota produces. A bigger offshore reach, he said, would boost U.S. energy security.
"We can and should do more," he said.