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Offshore drilling wins out for Trump administration despite questions over safety, legality

After a seeming lull, Atlantic and Pacific drilling plans are back in action, while questions linger over safety in the Gulf.

The drill ship Rowan Resolute in the Gulf of Mexico during a flight out of New Orleans, LA on July 21, 2018. CREDIT: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images
The drill ship Rowan Resolute in the Gulf of Mexico during a flight out of New Orleans, LA on July 21, 2018. CREDIT: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history plods on, updates to Interior Department contingency plans show where priorities lie. The Trump administration on Tuesday revised the plans to allow for offshore oil and gas drilling to continue.

This move to prioritize offshore drilling plans comes at the same time as an offshore wind power project remains stalled. All the while, drilling continues in the Gulf of Mexico, and with fewer staff to oversee operations many fear an uptick in safety risks.

Initial contingency plans for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) appeared to put a halt to work on many projects, including a five-year Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program that would open virtually all U.S. waters to drilling. But updated plans, revised last week and first widely circulated on January 15, indicate that 40 personnel are now on-call to assist with OCS efforts.

“There’s no clearer statement of President Trump’s priority to radically expand offshore drilling at any cost. Charging ahead with what appears to be the demands of the offshore drilling industry while so many government services go neglected is jaw dropping,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director for the non-profit group Oceana, in a statement to ThinkProgress.

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The prioritizing of offshore oil and gas drilling comes despite a halt in offshore wind efforts. Meetings in Martha’s Vineyard to address a planned 800-megawatt wind farm off of Massachusetts’ coast were stalled last week over the shutdown, with no indication of when they might be rescheduled.

It is unclear what legal justification the Trump administration has for updating the contingency plans and spokespeople at the Interior Department are still largely unable to comment, with their staff furloughed. On Wednesday, House Democrats sent a letter to Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt demanding that drilling work halt during the shutdown and calling the department’s justifications “farcical.” Lawmakers demanded Bernhardt come to Capitol Hill to explain the moves if drilling is to continue.

It is also unclear what exactly is taking place regarding oil and gas operations during the shutdown. Numerous policy experts and environmental advocates told ThinkProgress that they feel a degree of secrecy has surrounded the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plans since the government shut down began in December.

Many experts speculated that the OCS plan, along with a planned environmental review for seismic testing, would likely be released once the shutdown came to an end. But with BOEM’s updated contingency plans, drilling opponents fear that efforts to open up more waters to offshore drilling will no longer be stalled — and could even land before the shutdown ends.

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Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico drilling continues. There are almost 200 offshore oil rigs in the Gulf, overseen largely by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). While the shutdown has severely curtailed BOEM’s related work, BSEE has seen different impacts.

Of the agency’s 803 employees, 409 — more than half — are currently working, because BSEE’s funding is largely not hurt by the shutdown. And the majority of BOEM employees made available during the shutdown under the agency’s original contingency plans were deemed critical because of their work with BSEE.

Created in 2011 after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BSEE is meant to ensure safety and environmental protection. And while BSEE staffing has been prioritized more than in other parts of the government, the agency is still running at half-staff during the shutdown. That reality has left some experts and environmental advocates concerned about safety issues.

Elizabeth Klein, deputy director for New York University’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, told ThinkProgress that BSEE’s work during the shutdown has seemingly consisted of permitting and oversight, along with inspection work and reviewing plans. That doesn’t mean new permits are necessarily being issued. Klein, who served at the Interior Department during the Obama and Clinton administrations, noted that new leases are likely on hold while pre-exiting contracts are still being honored.

But drilling is still happening while the agency intended to protect against accidents is facing diminished staff. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely that deficit is to take a toll.

“Shutdowns are incredibly disruptive to everyone. No one wins in a shutdown,” Klein said, noting that offshore oil drilling is a deeply dangerous occupation for workers, and one that moreover poses outsized risks to the environment and to public health. “I think while BSEE does have a whole lot of their staff still reporting to work right now… a shutdown still raises concern about the extent to which they’re able to oversee their massive operations.”

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In response to a request for comment and more information from BSEE, a spokesperson sent ThinkProgress a link to the agency’s contingency plan.

“Inspections and permit processing continues in all three of BSEE’s Regions, Alaska, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific,” the spokesperson wrote.

But despite the risks as safety personnel numbers at BSEE dwindle, drilling in the Gulf remains a priority for the Trump administration during the shutdown, so much so that BOEM’s updated contingency plans directly cited an offshore lease sale scheduled for March.

“Failure to hold these sales would have a negative impact to the Treasury and negatively impact investment in the U.S. Offshore Gulf of Mexico,” BOEM wrote by way of explanation in its updated plan. The plan nonetheless brings back employees to work on non-Gulf drilling projects, like the OCS five-year leasing plan.

In an email to ThinkProgress, Alexis Baldera, who directs the non-profit Ocean Conservancy’s Gulf restoration program, wrote that that the shutdown’s impacts are likely to have long-term implications on the Gulf of Mexico.

Baldera said that efforts by the Interior Department to weaken post-2010 oil spill drilling safety regulations coupled with the “reckless offshore oil and gas exploration” policies sought by the Trump administration were perilous to the region even before the shutdown depleted oversight and enforcement efforts.

“The implications of the shutdown on offshore drilling safety cannot be ignored, especially in the Gulf of Mexico where there were 175 active rigs last year. We are troubled to hear about reduced oversight during the shutdown,” she said.

For drilling opponents, safety concerns in the Gulf have now been compounded by renewed OCS five-year plan efforts, with unpaid federal workers recalled from furlough to help the effort be completed. With around 800,000 government employees still on furlough or working without pay, agencies remain largely unresponsive to questions from the press and the public. Due to this, environmental advocates fear that should the long-awaited plan be released during the shutdown, it may receive little scrutiny.

Hoskins, of Oceana, highlighted that “every East and West Coast governor” has signaled opposition to offshore drilling — including by supporting laws to block it — and that “outcry from coastal fishing and tourism industries” has largely gone ignored by the White House.

In the drilling-active Gulf, meanwhile, economic and safety concerns are only likely to mount as the longest shutdown in U.S. history drags on.

“Offshore drilling is an undeniably important part of the Gulf economy,” said Baldera, “but coastal communities are simply not ready to sacrifice the health of the ocean during the shutdown.”