The Obama administration finalized its plans for offshore drilling on Friday, protecting much of the Arctic Ocean and all of the Atlantic coast, but staying the course on Gulf of Mexico drilling.
Environmentalists applauded the new five-year plan from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which covers offshore leasing from 2017 to 2022 and is slightly stronger than its draft iterations. The Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska have been removed, with only a reduced parcel in the Cook Inlet near southern Alaska remaining.
“We are hopeful that this announcement will help chart a new course forward in the Arctic Ocean,” Jacqueline Savitz, a senior vice president at Oceana, said in an emailed statement. “Companies have been given every opportunity to find oil and have failed at every turn because of the extreme conditions and limited window for operations there.”
But oil drilling off the U.S. coast will certainly continue. The Department of the Interior estimates that 70 percent of the “economically recoverable resources” on the outer continental shelf are available under this plan.
“The plan focuses lease sales in the best places — those with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict, and established infrastructure — and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Given the unique and challenging Arctic environment and industry’s declining interest in the area, forgoing lease sales in the Arctic is the right path forward.”
And with all the talk about what the next president could do to environmental policies enacted under the current administration, it’s worth noting that it would be difficult — but not impossible — for President-elect Donald Trump’s administration to offer up additional places in the Arctic for leasing or to restart the process of drilling in the Atlantic. Trump has repeatedly pledged to open up the Arctic and Atlantic for drilling.
It takes two to three years to develop a five-year program, which is statutorily required for lease sales. Moreover, a revised plan would have to use updated scientific data and would likely be vulnerable to legal challenges from the public and environmental groups if the administration attempted to accelerate or short-cut the planning process that is required by law, sources familiar with the process said.
And there are significant questions about whether drilling in the Arctic is even feasible, particularly in the near future. Shell, which had a lease in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, abandoned its plans for drilling there after public outcry and $7 billion in wasted investment. Drilling in the Arctic is technically difficult, as well as dangerous, so it is more expensive. With the current low oil prices, the Arctic is not seen as a boon to business. It’s more of a boondoggle.
“In addition to the environmental case against drilling in the Arctic, the business case has fallen apart,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Companies have pulled their interests from the Arctic because they have found it is just too expensive and dangerous of a boondoggle to pursue.”
At the time, environmentalists — perhaps rightly — took a lot of credit for delaying Shell’s exploration in the Arctic.
In recent years, the prospect of increased offshore drilling has become deeply unpopular across the United States.
When the Obama administration explored the option of opening up the Atlantic coast, opposition catalyzed the southeast — a region not known for its environmental activism. Across South Carolina, 100 percent of the coastline signed local resolutions against offshore drilling. In Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, too, the thought of potentially ruining the economically critical fisheries and recreation opportunities of the coast sparked a massive backlash to the proposal — even while inland lawmakers and governors backed the plan.
Now, it only remains to be seen whether BOEM will approve pending seismic testing permits for the region. Seismic testing is a precursor to drilling. The technique, which even its inventor has spoken out against, uses loud sounds bounced off the ocean floor. Unfortunately, the noises are extremely disruptive to wildlife and fisheries.
“While we celebrate this important victory, we must not forget that the Atlantic Ocean is still not safe from destructive activities like seismic airgun blasting,” Savitz said.