Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the agency has abruptly paused its controversial plans to open virtually all U.S. waters to offshore drilling, a stunning reversal following more than a year of bipartisan uproar from coastal communities.
The news comes as some Democratic presidential candidates have started to speak out on the issue. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently took a strong stand against offshore drilling in South Carolina, a key primary state that has largely revolted against President Donald Trump’s coastal fossil fuel ambitions. Several others have since joined in calls against the expansion of offshore drilling.
In an interview Thursday with the Wall Street Journal, Bernhardt said the administration’s long-anticipated five-year leasing plan targeting the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) has been sidelined following a federal court decision in Alaska earlier this month. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason blocked Trump administration efforts to reverse the Obama-era ban on oil and gas leasing in both the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic Ocean, determining that Trump had “exceeded” his authority in challenging the limits on drilling.
The decision left DOI officials unsure of how to proceed on broader offshore drilling efforts. “By the time the court rules, that may be discombobulating to our plan,” Bernhardt said, pointing to the limits of any future efforts to expand offshore drilling in the area.
DOI acknowledged Bernhardt’s comments but said there were no more updates available on the department’s offshore drilling plans. Opponents, however, cautiously greeted the news with optimism.
“If it’s real… it’s a good day all around for the oceans and local economies,” said Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce (SCSBC).
Knapp told ThinkProgress that the news will also likely impact seismic testing, the process of using deafening blasts to assess potential oil and gas reserves. Experts have long argued that seismic testing can be catastrophic for marine life, the loss of which can in turn be devastating for coastal communities reliant on industries like tourism and fishing.
The prospect of both offshore drilling and seismic testing has struck a nerve in coastal states. Every East and West Coast state opposes offshore drilling in their respective waters, in a bipartisan rejection of Trump’s plans. And that opposition has found traction with Democratic presidential contenders.
Last week while stumping in Charleston, South Carolina, Warren pledged that she would put a halt to offshore drilling “on day one” if elected president. In a subsequent editorial for the Post and Courier, Knapp of SCSBC called for Warren’s stance to become a “litmus test” for all presidential candidates across party lines.
Some candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have already taken strong stances against offshore drilling and campaigned on the issue. Other candidates have since quickly jumped to add their voices to the chorus — Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) of South Bend, Indiana, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said this week that they would support freezing fossil fuel leasing on public lands, which includes U.S. waters.
South Carolina is an early primary state, but states like Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina also represent key areas where offshore drilling support could cost candidates dearly — including Republicans.
That reality has been weighing on coastal Republicans, who have pushed hard for the Trump administration to pause its offshore drilling plans. In voting to confirm Bernhardt, Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Republicans, asserted that they felt confident the Sunshine State would be exempt from any final offshore projects.
It is unclear whether looming political hurdles may be playing a role in DOI’s hesitancy to move forward with the OCS plan. In a statement Thursday, Nat Mund, director of federal affairs for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), emphasized that drilling opponents are hopeful DOI will move to permanently halt the Trump administration’s offshore drilling efforts.
“Secretary Bernhardt may be closely aligned with the oil industry, but he also recognizes the political reality of such an unpopular proposal,” Mund said. “We can only hope this move represents a return to rationality and a genuine listening to the bipartisan voices that have asked the administration to stop this.”
Legal experts told ThinkProgress Thursday that because the Obama administration’s OCS plans extend until 2022, there is no legal reason why the Trump administration’s OCS leasing program cannot be put on hold. Still, some offshore drilling critics said they were waiting to hear the final word from DOI.
“Sidelined indefinitely or completely off the table? Anything short of all new areas being protected would be a major problem for the communities and coastal economies who have the most to lose from dirty and dangerous offshore drilling,” said Diane Hoskins, Oceana campaign director, in a statement to ThinkProgress.
Knapp, who was similarly cautious, said he was unsure of the ultimate motivations for the apparent reversal, but gave credit to the massive coastal grassroots effort that has mounted to oppose drilling across party lines.
“For whatever reason… the stars are aligning, politically, legally,” he said, nodding to the bipartisan work resisting the offshore drilling plans. “This didn’t just happen, this has been a concentrated opposition for [years]. That’s what it takes to win a battle.”