WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bipartisan group of Florida congressional representatives is working to permanently extend a ban on oil and gas leasing in parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
The existing ban is scheduled to end June 30, 2022.
Their work is aimed, in part, at protecting the Gulf Test Range — a military test and training area covering 120,000 square miles of the Gulf — from encroachment that could compromise its usefulness.
The range is used by a wide array of military units, including Eglin Air Force Base’s 33rd Fighter Wing and 96th Test Wing, and the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field. The range accommodates air combat training, air-to-air missile testing, drone targeting, hypersonic weapons testing and space launches.
In what may be one of the shortest legislative proposals on record, the seven-line bill, titled the Protecting and Securing Florida's Coastline Act of 2019, would amend the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, which established the soon-to-expire ban on oil and gas exploration.
Under the legislative proposal, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior would be permanently prohibited from offering wide areas of the Gulf "for leasing, pre-leasing or any related activity ... ." Affected areas would include "any area east of the Military Mission Line," a line that extends south from near Fort Walton Beach to deep in the Gulf.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Francis Rooney, a Republican representing a South Florida district on the Gulf. Its co-sponsors include Panhandle congressmen Reps. Matt Gaetz and Neal Dunn, along with seven other Florida lawmakers.
Gaetz said at at a defense contracting summit in Miramar Beach in January that protecting the Gulf Test Range is his 'top legislative priority." Gaetz also said that oil and gas interests were "licking their chops" at the prospect of the 2022 expiration of the ban on oil and gas exploration.
The Protecting and Securing Florida's Coastline Act was assigned to the House Committee on Natural Resources in January, and was the subject of a subcommittee hearing Tuesday. The subcommittee accepted written testimony from James R. Heald, a retired Air Force colonel who is now vice president for strategic programs at InDyne, a contractor that operates and maintains Eglin's test ranges. Prior to joining InDyne, Heald was responsible for all developmental testing and evaluation at Eglin.
Heald wrote that allowing oil and gas exploration in areas of the Gulf used for military testing would be problematic.
"Increased maritime and air traffic servicing oil/gas exploration or production platforms exacerbates the problem of finding clear areas for weapons testing in and over the Gulf," Heald noted. "Creating an opportunity for more incompatible activity poses and unacceptable risk to current and future military operations."
In 2017, crude oil production in the U.S. federal Gulf of Mexico reached 1.65 million barrels per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and was projected to continue at record highs through this year.
Natural gas production has been declining in the Gulf for years, but new production fields could reverse that trend, according to a recent EIA report.