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Anger over offshore rigs

Most of Maryland’s Congressional lawmakers—along with their colleagues from up and down the East Coast—have been up in arms over the Interior Department’s announcement that it will allow drilling for gas and oil in the Atlantic Ocean.

They were angry enough in December when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the plan. That anger turned to outrage this month when Florida was given a waiver that blocks drilling off the state’s shores.

"It’s political," fumed Maryland’s senior Democratic Senator Ben Cardin. "It’s outrageous." 

Zinke granted Florida an exemption after meeting with the state’s Republican Governor Rick Scott, who is expected to run for Senate later this year. Cardin says that doesn’t pass the political smell test.

"If you’re going by what the states want why wouldn’t those states with governors who don’t want this be given waivers," he asked. "But they’re not. It’s very transparent – the politics."

But not everyone is angry. Andy Harris, the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation, said he could be open to drilling under the right circumstances.

"First of all it can’t be in sight of the shoreline," said Harris, whose Eastern Shore district includes Maryland’s beach resorts. "I feel the same way with wind projects. If it can be further off shore and they can convince me it can be done safely, and the communities that would be affected agree to it, I’m not an opponent."

Harris denied claims the administration played politics with Florida’s exemption. It’s consistent with his positions, he argued.

"The neighboring community, in this case the state of Florida, has to agree to it. If they don’t agree with it then the federal government shouldn’t force it on them. That’s not my position. It’s whatever the community’s position is."

Harris has used his perch on the House Appropriations Committee to try to try to block wind turbines from being seen from Ocean City’s beaches, and he says something similar may be needed if oil and gas rigs are ever approved off Maryland’s coast.

"I actually put an amendment on the appropriations bill that would not allow the Interior Department to consider anything closer than 24 miles," he said. "That’s the distance at which you wouldn’t see the windmills anymore from the shore."

Most other East Coast Republicans disagree with Harris. But for Democrats, like Maryland’s John Sarbanes, it’s a nonstarter.

"I sort of look at it and I ask the question: Is it really worth the risk," said Sarbanes, whose district sprawls across parts of Baltimore city and county as well as parts of Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties.

"When you look at the history of oil spills--the damage that it can do not just to the environment, but what it can do to the economy in terms of the tourism industry, what it can do to life and limb when you look what happened with the BP oil spill, for example. So it seems to me totally wrongheaded."

Sarbanes says offshore drilling also is nonsensical because the onshore oil and gas drilling industry is booming.

"We’re doing fine with our energy portfolio and with the mix of energy resources that we assemble to support our country," he said. "We don’t need to start opening up all these areas to offshore drilling."

Sarbanes says a bipartisan group of lawmakers and interested parties are planning to fight against the effort in the courts.

"It takes some time to put this kind of thing into place, so I’m hoping that we can assemble some opposition in a way that can direct things back in the other way," he said.

The proposal from the Trump administration is a draft – making it still open to public comment for the coming months, and most lawmakers from the Mid-Atlantic region are expected to give the administration an earful in that period.