Trump’s Commerce Department is considering shrinking marine monuments for more oil drilling

President Trump asked the Commerce Secretary to report on opening marine sanctuaries to drilling.

The recently expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is one of the offshore areas being considered for development. CREDIT: Wyland/NOAA via AP
The recently expanded Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is one of the offshore areas being considered for development. CREDIT: Wyland/NOAA via AP

This week, the Department of the Interior offered its largest lease sale ever for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Not to be outdone, the Commerce Department sent recommendations Wednesday to the White House that could open up even more U.S. waters to oil and gas companies and will make permitting processes easier.

One report, sent Wednesday by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to the head of the Office of Management and Budget offers some insight into the agency’s efforts to “alleviate or eliminate regulatory burdens on energy production and economic growth.” The report, required by a March executive order on energy, suggests some ways to streamline permitting processes and outlines a new task force at the agency that is reviewing requirements.

A separate Commerce report, also ordered by the president and submitted Wednesday, but not released to the public, looked at whether current marine sanctuaries and monuments could be shrunk and opened to oil drilling. Eleven sanctuaries or monuments — five that were created or expanded under the George W. Bush administration and seven that were created or enlarged under the Obama administration (one was created under Bush and enlarged under Obama) — were targeted for review.

The areas make up 425 million acres, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including around the Channel Islands, off the coast of California, between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

Much like a recommendation from the Interior Department on to possibly reduce or eliminate some National Parks and Monuments — which also hasn’t been made public — the proposal is deeply unpopular. Analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 99 percent of public comments on the proposal to shrink protected areas — including coral reef and marine mammal habitats — expressed opposition to the plan.

CREDIT: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
CREDIT: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Despite the titles of the two executive orders this spring, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth” and “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” the moves by the Trump administration are unlikely to make the United States any more energy independent, but they could line the pockets of some of this administration’s most enthusiastic supporters — petroleum companies.

Still, with low oil prices, offshore drilling is less attractive now than it has been in previous years. In a lease sale last summer less than 1 percent (138,240 acres) of the Gulf waters on offer were bought — despite the previous administration’s move to lower royalty rates. Another sale this year — with royalty rates again lowered — saw even lower purchase rates although a greater total area (508,096 acres), with only half a percent of tracts being bought.

At the time, Secretary Ryan Zinke said the sale showed “continued industry optimism and interest in the Gulf’s Outer Continental Shelf.”

However, none of the members in the Western States Petroleum Association are interested in drilling in any of the four areas off the California coast included in the Commerce review — including near Santa Barbara, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the trade group, told Reuters.

Environmentalists criticized the department’s review — and its failure to make it public. The process to reduce or redefine preserved oceanic areas has mirrored that of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who released a similar review for National Parks and Monuments.

“Following Secretary Zinke’s disturbing pattern of attacking our public lands and waters, Secretary Ross continued the Trump administration’s anti-environmental agenda with a review that should have never even happened,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president with the League of Conservation Voters, said in an emailed statement. “It’s time for the Trump administration to stop ignoring the many diverse stakeholders and the hundreds of thousands of people who have submitted comments opposing this unprecedented and unnecessary review.”

Aside from the sanctuary recommendations, the Commerce Department did publicly release an update on a task force at the agency that is looking at ways to reduce regulation on offshore drilling. The task force identified several ways the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) could “streamline” the process for drilling in offshore waters. The Commerce Department oversees NOAA, which is responsible for some of the permitting and regulations for offshore drilling.

The administration is not subtle about its plans. According to the agency’s recap of recent events, a notice from NOAA in the Federal Register in July had the goal of “soliciting public comment generally related to streamlining regulatory processes and reducing regulatory burdens in order to benefit various sectors of industry” (emphasis added). The industry in question is the oil and gas industry.