Biden administration’s revocation of energy leasing provokes mixed feelings from Southeast Texas judge, Texas House speaker

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick does all the cooking in his house, and he says it’s starting to get expensive. There’s been a steady uptick in prices at the grocery store, which he ties directly to federal environmental policies.

“A 9 ounce bag of spinach that I paid $1.26 for six months ago, that’s $1.78. The asparagus that was $1.28 a pound is now $2.98 a pound,” he said. “Blueberries and raspberries – they more than doubled in cost. Eggs have gone up, milk has gone up, meat and chicken have gone up. The cost of diesel and the cost of getting products to the shelf has gone up.” 

In Jefferson County, as news travels of the Biden administration’s suspension on energy leasing in the Gulf of Mexico – which will start this July – some local elected officials are worried what impact that decision will have on the local economy.

Branick wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland requesting she reverse this policy and urging her to hold a lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico on or before July 1 and to develop a new, five-year plan that fosters the development of oil and gas industry in the county.

Branick says leasing in the Gulf supports 147,000 jobs and millions in Texas’ Gross Domestic Product.. He also stated that the industry contributes to conservation and environmental projects in Jefferson County and across the nation. 

“For Fiscal Year 2020, Texas received over $37 million for critical conservation projects across our coasts via Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) funding,” he wrote. “Offshore leasing also greatly supports the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and funding for the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA). Without offshore oil and gas leasing, these conservation funds will continue to decline.”

Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Dade Phelan also wrote a similar letter and sent it directly to President Joe Biden. Both Phelan and Branick expressed concerns about energy independence, especially in the wake of the war between Russia and Ukraine.

“The administration has proposed asking adversarial foreign nations to increase their oil and gas production to help America’s supply instead of looking for solutions in our own backyard,” Phelan wrote. 

But not every Southeast Texan is buying it.

“The true oil independence comes when you don’t need oil anymore,” said John Beard, founder and CEO of the environmental justice non-profit, Port Arthur Community Action Network. 

Beard worked for what is now ExxonMobil for 38 years and retired in 2017. He said in his time working at the plant, he saw things that made him reconsider. 

“What you have to question is the need and necessity for more (leases) when they already have leases onshore that aren’t being utilized,” he said, referring to fracking. “Why have more leases when you’re not even drilling on the sites that you already have?”

Mostly, though, Beard is concerned about climate change. He said that if we do not cut 40% of carbon emissions by 2030, a disaster is on its way. Think Tropical Storm Harvey, he said, but on a regular basis.

“We’re going to have a climate catastrophe on our hands, and I want to see what the county judge and others are going to do then,” he said. “Port Arthur will no longer be a coastal city inland of the Gulf. It will probably be on the Gulf, with the polar caps melting.”

Human civilization is only one part of the problem. Austin-based Environment Texas’ executive director Luke Metzger says that events like the Deepwater Horizon spill show how damaging oil leasing also can be for oceans and marine life.

“We don’t need this offshore oil anymore,” he said. “We have clean energy technology, including electric vehicles, the sales of which are booming, (and) renewable energy that can allow us to power our society without causing such damage to critical ecosystems.”

He points to the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and funding for electric vehicle charging stations on highways across the nation.

“The technology is absolutely here,” he said. “With that charging infrastructure, if you’re going a long distance, you’ll be able to find a place to charge between cities. But (for) most people, 90% of their travel is generally just within a city, for which a charge at your home at night is more than sufficient.”

Branick doesn’t think it’s that simple. 

“I believe that someday alternative sources of energy will be found and will be more efficient. I don’t believe we’ve yet reached that day or even close to it,” he said. “A battery-powered car is not internally producing its energy.  It has to be hooked up to a source of electricity. That battery is just a storage of energy and it has to be hooked up to a generation facility that probably runs off natural gas, maybe coal, or nuclear energy. Most of it has a connection back to fossil fuels.” 

Metzger conceded that this is the case, but that electric engines are, on average, three times cleaner than traditional internal combustion engines – and he believes they are only going to get cleaner.

Even still, that fact alone doesn’t take into account the labor issues that could arise from switching to green energy. Branick is concerned about the residents of Jefferson County.

“I’m the judge of a county that’s heavily invested in petrochemical refining, so all my friends, jobs and their family’s welfare depends on the health of that industry,” Branick said. “In the Industrial Revolution, when integrated production methods came into being, blacksmiths were put out of business. We moved to vehicles and those people that chose horses lost their jobs and had to transfer to another industry. That’s eventually going to happen to the petrochemical and refining industry. But right now, I don’t see the technology being there to justify separating ourselves from the oil industry and driving prices so high we’re causing inflation in the grocery stores.” 

Another local industry he fears for is fishing. 

“Those rigs provide critical structure that are needed in our fisheries, and something like 600 rigs were decommissioned over the last couple of years,” Branick said. “Well, that’s a big loss of habitat for fisheries. As matter of fact, there’s a huge move by the Coastal Conservation Association and various coastal states’ fish and wildlife agencies to try to do artificial reefs.”

But ultimately, Metzger says the Biden administration’s move to suspend new leasing doesn’t eliminate the large section of the Gulf of Mexico that has been leased for decades with no sigh of stopping.

He also thinks there’s an alternative source of energy leasing that the Gulf could really take advantage of – an industry Texas hasn’t really gotten into, but that neighboring Louisiana is actively building up.

“The federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has found that the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, just off the coast, is the best place in the entire Gulf of Mexico for offshore wind,” Metzger said. “And so we wish the judge would be writing about engaging in that effort because it’s a huge opportunity for Jefferson County.”

Wind turbines, he said, would be drilled into the floor of the Gulf in much the same way as oil rigs and would still provide a boost to the fishing industry.

“The same structures that attract marine life are used for offshore wind and so we certainly can have the same kind of benefits as artificial reefs from offshore wind turbines,” he commented.

Branick said that Jefferson County has not looked into offshore wind farming, but that some wind farm groups have approached several large agricultural landowners in the area. 

“I don’t know that they’ve made firm offers,” the judge said. “I think they’re just in the exploratory phases.”

It remains to be seen what the future holds for business, government and nonprofit advocacy, but the Department of the Interior intends to release the five-year plan by the end of June.

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