Trump opening the door to radically expand offshore drilling

The Trump administration is proposing dramatic changes to policies on leasing for oil and gas, opening the door to radically expand offshore drilling in waters that were protected by the Obama administration.

It’s the “largest number of lease sales ever proposed,” said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of a proposed plan to sell offshore drilling leases in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic over a five-year period.

The plan would determine the size, timing and location of leasing activities, and would replace Obama’s 2017-2022 program. It includes all but one of 26 “planning areas” in federal waters off U.S. coastlines, comprising about 90 percent of the outer continental shelf.

Environmental organizations are alarmed and stress that it could place wildlife and coastal communities at risk of a spill.

“The proposal would expose the Arctic waters — our last undeveloped ocean —to drilling, put the Atlantic coast on the chopping block for the first time since 1983, open the Pacific coast — which has not seen federal drilling for decades, and further threaten the debilitated Gulf of Mexico,” said a statement signed by 64 organizations and environmental groups.

“The Trump administration’s proposed offshore leasing proposal could ultimately expose coastal communities to unacceptable harm,” said Lisa McCormick, a New Jersey Democrat. “Oil spills from offshore operations could irreversibly harm thriving coastal economies, public health, and marine life across vast swaths of publicly owned federal waters.”

“In the long run, auctioning off these areas to the fossil fuel industry for oil and gas drilling will also make it extremely challenging, if not impossible, to correct course on climate change,” said McCormick.

The Trump plan was jump started in 2017 despite the conclusion of a five-year plan in 2016, which integrated feedback from more than two million Americans who turned out to register their opposition to offshore drilling.

“Today’s draft offshore leasing plan continues the Trump administration’s all-out assault on public lands and waters,” said Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen. “The plan proposes to expand offshore oil drilling everywhere, including in our most sensitive waters. It puts irreplaceable wildlife and coastal communities at risk for the sole benefit of Big Oil, and it takes us in exactly the wrong direction on the urgently needed transition to a clean energy future.”

“Less than a year ago, after years of study and public input, President Obama kept leasing out of some of our most sensitive seas and permanently protected the Arctic Ocean and important parts of the Atlantic Ocean from expanded offshore drilling,” said Van Noppen. “President Trump is bent on reversing these gains, but we will continue to fight him at every turn.”

Zinke emphasized that “this is a draft program.” The plan has a comment period of 60 days, in which authorities will hear from states, the public and other stakeholders. It would take effect in 2019.

The proposed change is welcomed by the oil and gas industry.

In a statement, the National Ocean Industries Association praised Zinke “for offering the broadest possible acreage for potential inclusion in our nation’s next offshore leasing program.”

Last April, Trump directed Zinke to review the Obama administration’s five-year plan. The areas reviewed included portions of the Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans where the previous administration had not allowed drilling.

The Trump administration has touted the change as an “America-first offshore energy strategy.” Before signing the order, Trump said “renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent.”

Legal experts have raised questions about whether the Trump administration actually has the power to change portions of Obama’s policies, such as reversing the Arctic leasing ban.

Shortly before Obama left office he used an obscure provision of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to issue what he called a permanent ban on offshore drilling in large parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

The Obama administration said it could not be reversed, because there is no provision to do so in that law.

Trump’s executive order explicitly mentions the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and says it is simply modifying the text of the Obama memorandum.

It’s also not clear how much new drilling would actually happen even if it is allowed. The current price of oil is about $60 a barrel — fairly low — and offshore drilling is an expensive endeavor, especially in places like the Arctic.

Separately, the Trump administration is seeking to relax a rule requiring equipment used by oil and gas companies in offshore drilling to be certified by third-party inspectors.

Now they’re going to use some industry-set recommendations — recommended practices instead of these third-party inspectors,” Inside Energy executive editor Alisa Barba.

“It is time for a paradigm shift in the way we regulate the [outer continental shelf],” said Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Scott Angelle. “There was an assumption made previously that only more rules would increase safety, but ultimately it is not an either/or proposition. We can actually increase domestic energy production and increase safety and environmental protection.”

That proposed rule is open to public comment until Jan. 29.

The BSEE, the federal regulator of the offshore energy industry, was set up in response to 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and killed 11 people.

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