Jeff Duncan (JeffDuncan.house.gov)
By Mary Orndorff Troyan, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON- About 1.5 million acres along the U.S.-Mexico maritime border would open to oil and gas drilling under an agreement negotiated by the administration and championed by a conservative Republican from South Carolina.
The U.S. House is expected to vote next month on legislation by Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, that would implement the 2012 deal to allow offshore drilling in an area of the Gulf of Mexico believed to hold up to 172 million barrels of oil and 304 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Duncan hails the deal as a victory for energy independence and national security, but it also embodies a bipartisanship usually elusive in Washington
Duncan is a tea party-backed Republican who colorfully criticizes President Barack Obama on almost every issue, yet his oil and gas drilling bill is a product of cooperation with the Democratic administration.
"We're hostile toward each other enough so it's great to have an area we have some common ground where we can work together for the benefit of the nation," Duncan said Thursday while traveling in South Carolina. "Here's a bright spot where we can say the administration got this one right, and Republicans agree."
The U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Hydrocarbon Agreement would give congressional approval to the agreement signed in February 2012 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa. It also has the support of the Interior Department.
"At a time when we are working hard to both secure energy supplies and shift to more environmentally appropriate means of extracting fossil fuels, but also adding immeasurably to our search for renewable energy, this agreement is a win-win," Clinton said at the signing in Los Cabos. "These reservoirs could hold considerable reserves that would benefit the United States and Mexico alike."
The agreement would end the drilling moratorium in the Western Gap portion of the Gulf of Mexico and allow U.S. companies to collaborate with the Mexican national oil company, PEMEX, to explore and develop the area. It includes provisions for sharing royalties and a joint commitment to safety and environmental protection, including more rig inspections.
"Everything we learned after Deepwater Horizon - Mexico or PEMEX would have to be in compliance with that," Duncan said. "That was a very vital component to having bipartisan support for this."
The bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee earlier in May on a 25-16 vote. Committee members, however, heard concerns about the environmental impact of new drilling in deep water.
"Oil spills and pollution from rigs, whether they occur in the central and western Gulf, or in the areas opened by the Transboundary Hydrocarbon Agreement, are not compatible with our nation's tourism and recreation economies, our oceans and waters, or our coastlines," said Athan Manual, director of the lands protection program at the Sierra Club.
It's likely there also will be further debate over a provision in Duncan's bill that exempts the deal from a financial regulation that requires disclosures of payments made to foreign governments. Duncan said the rule applies to financial companies, not American oil companies that would be sharing oil and gas royalties with Mexico.
For Duncan, the drilling deal overlaps two of his committees: Natural Resources and Foreign Affairs.
"This could be landmark legislation in how future agreements are implemented because right now there is not a mechanism to implement these type of agreements," Duncan said.
The bill envisions future deals over maritime boundaries with Canada, Russia, the Bahamas and Bermuda.
If approved by the House, the legislation will move to the Senate.