Trump’s offshore oil and gas drilling plan threatens scores of coastal national parks

From Cape Hatteras National Seashore to Channel Islands National Park, coastal lands are under attack.

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. CREDIT: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is located in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. CREDIT: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

Coastal national parks face both environmental and economic risks from President Trump’s plan to expand oil and gas drilling to almost all coastal areas of the United States, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Parks Conservation Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The Trump administration is proposing opening up the waters of 14 coastal states to oil and gas drilling. These states’ coastlines, however, are home to 68 national parks, warns the report, including the Channel Islands National Park in California, which was harmed by a major oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California in 1969. More than 84 million visits were made to these national parks in 2017.

Advertisement

Together, ocean-related tourism and the recreation sectors in these states contributed $90.3 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2015, the report’s authors found. The level of recreation and tourism almost certainly would nosedive in coastal regions, the report argues, if they saw greater industrialization from oil and gas infrastructure.

Climate change is also another reason not to allow expanded offshore drilling, according to the report. Coastal national parks like the Everglades in Florida and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina could be exposed to significant sea level rise and magnified storm surges due to the burning of fossil fuels extracted in offshore areas.

The NRDC report comes at the same time as a new government report sounds the alarm about the impact of rising sea levels on the nation’s public lands. Roughly 25 percent of U.S. national parks are vulnerable to rising sea levels because they’re situated in coastal areas, according to a report released last Friday by the National Park Service.

Along with the potential economic and climate impacts, oil spills similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 would have devastating impacts on the ecosystems inside national parks located along the coasts, says the report, titled: “‘SpOILed Parks: The Threat to our Coastal National Parks from Expanded Offshore Drilling.”

The Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil along the Alaskan coastline, including the Kenai Fjords, Katmai, and Aniakchak national park sites. Recreation and tourism declined dramatically as a result. Despite cleanup efforts, oil remains on the beaches of these national parks almost 30 years after the disaster.

Advertisement

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill leaked more than 171 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, contaminating hundreds of miles of beaches, wetlands, and ocean waters. The spill affected every major island in Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national park that is still recovering from the spill’s effects on plants, wildlife, and archaeological resources.

The coastal areas under consideration for expanded oil and gas drilling are located in Alaska, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New England, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington state.

The Trump administration has done a lot of public back-peddling and given mixed signals suggesting it may “spare” states like Florida, Franz Matzner, deputy director of federal campaigns for the NRDC, wrote Wednesday in a blog post.

“There’s no bargain to be struck here: any expansion of offshore drilling is too much. Our public ocean waters — and all they support — are still going to have a bullseye squarely fixed on them unless the entire proposal is relegated to the dustbin of history,” Matzner wrote.

The Cape Hatteras lighthouse sits on Hatteras Island on the coast of North Carolina. CREDIT: National Park Service
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse sits on Hatteras Island on the coast of North Carolina. CREDIT: National Park Service

The Trump administration’s proposal, first made public in January, would open up 90 percent of the nation’s offshore areas to oil and gas leasing. The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Offshore Energy Management held several public meetings on the proposal over a two-month period that ended in early March.

Advertisement

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the proposal is consistent with Trump’s executive order issued in April 2017 to widen energy exploration. The plan represented a clear departure from the Obama administration’s effort to protect areas rather than exploit them, he said. “This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance,” the secretary said.

Officials from a dozen coastal states have filed comments in opposition to the plan, arguing that increased offshore drilling would contribute to climate change and associated consequences, such as sea level rise and more frequent and severe extreme weather events. They also argued that offshore drilling could compromise sensitive coastal ecosystems and marine economies in the affected states.

The administration’s final offshore drilling plan is expected to be released in the next few months.

The proposal has generated fierce opposition from nearly every governor of a state that would see its waters opened to oil and gas extraction under the five-year plan. The only governor that has not opposed the plan is Paul LePage of Maine.

In response to the administration’s push to open new areas to offshore drilling, the NRDC released an advertisement on Wednesday highlighting the impact that the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan could have on coastal states.

Advertisement

“The plan could be devastating: offshore drilling could ruin fisheries, soil the habitats and migratory pathways of whales and dolphins; threaten coastal communities with industrialized coastlines and catastrophic spills; and exacerbate climate change,” the report says.

The report also notes how expanded offshore oil and gas drilling could exacerbate climate change, causing negative effects on inland national parks. By providing increased access to and sales of fossil fuels, greater levels of offshore drilling will ultimately contribute to greater greenhouse gas emissions.

Forested parks like Rocky Mountain and the Great Smoky Mountains are experiencing record wildfires, made more likely by climate change, according to the report. Desert parks like Joshua Tree and Grand Canyon often lack adequate water to sustain their plant and animal life. Alpine parks like Glacier and North Cascades will have no glaciers left within the next few decades.

Along with seeking to expand offshore drilling, the Trump administration has proposed repealing several offshore drilling regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon spill, the largest oil spill in history.

The Interior Department has said that rolling back the regulations, which include things like having third-party auditors certify the safety equipment on offshore rigs, would save industry some $228 million over 10 years.