Flagging down an oil and natural gas drilling debate

A seismic survey ship in operation offshore mid-Atlantic states.

The furor of debate over the Confederate flag did an unlikely thing: stalled a Congressional duel over whether to require federal leases be issued to explore and drill for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic, or to block them.

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., on Wednesday introduced an amendment to a funding bill, that would exclude Atlantic coast waters from being leased over the next five years. His amendment was a counter-move to an amendment by Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., that would have blocked the Obama administration from excluding the waters.

Dizzy yet? The amendments were scheduled to be debated on the House of Representatives floor Thursday until Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., introduced an amendment to the same bill that would have assured Confederate flags could be flown in national cemeteries over Confederate veterans’ graves.

They were among at least 15 amendments attached to an otherwise innocuous bill to provide funding for the Department of the Interior, as legislators battle over whether to cut federal funding and authority to regulate the environment.

The flag amendment was supposed to be debated Thursday. But with the emotions in South Carolina and other regional states, the flag debate is so divisive that the House Republican leadership pulled the appropriations bill instead — leaving the drilling amendments hanging.

“Everything is in limbo right now,” Sanford said after the session.

Since public hearings began last year on a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management proposal to open Atlantic waters to leasing, more than 50 coastal municipalities and organizations have opposed exploration and drilling, including at least 18 in South Carolina.

Sanford also has publicly come out in opposition. But Gov. Nikki Haley, as well as the majority of state and congressional lawmakers, have publicly supported the testing. In North Carolina, Hudson has pressed hard for the testing and drilling, calling it an important job creator for his state.

The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people and interests are divided between exploring for potential economic benefits or curbing exploration to protect marine life and a billion dollar tourism economy.

Hudson’s amendment was the latest among a number of federal and state moves to push for the leasing approval, backed by energy lobbying groups, as The Post and Courier reported earlier.

“Energy interests are well represented in Washington,” Sanford said.

An Oceana spokeswoman called Hudson’s amendment an oil industry driven effort, reacting to mixed signals from the Obama administration on what it will do about Atlantic leases being decided by BOEM amid growing opposition from coastal communities.

Hudson’s amendment “would sweep aside any number of federal regulations,” said Lara Levison, federal policy director for the conservation advocate.

The spokeswoman for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, the companies that would explore the waters, said it was critical for the administration to approve the leases for national energy security and revenue.

The surveys are needed to assess the resources before decisions can be made how to best use them, said spokeswoman Gail Adams. “No area of the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf should be prematurely removed from leasing consideration before this assessment can be made.”

It’s now up to Republican House leadership to make the next move, with the potential voting margin on the now-divisive Interior bill razor thin, Sanford said.

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