Lawmakers move on offshore drilling opposition as Trump Interior nominee comes under fire

The issue could bleed into 2020.

Oil and gas Jackup drilling rig at sunset in the Gulf of Mexico. CREDIT: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
Oil and gas Jackup drilling rig at sunset in the Gulf of Mexico. CREDIT: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham (D) is bringing his local fight against drilling in U.S. waters to Washington, D.C., with a bipartisan bill that would ban offshore drilling and seismic testing along both the East and West Coasts.

Cunningham’s bill introduced this week is part of an ever-growing bipartisan backlash to the Trump administration’s plans to open up the majority of U.S. waters to offshore drilling. Politicians from every single state along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts have voiced opposition to the proposal, setting up the dispute to be a dominant issue in the 2020 election.

The bill comes at the same time as President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Interior Department (DOI), David Bernhardt, is coming under increased scrutiny over the administration’s controversial plans to further expand offshore drilling.

Drilling has long been active off the Gulf Coast, but numerous accidents and oil spills over the years — which negatively impacted human health, local economies, and the environment — have made the issue a non-starter in other coastal states. Cunningham’s bill, the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act, seeks to prevent this happening on a wider scale.


“It’s an honor to have the opportunity to lead this bipartisan bill across the finish line to ban offshore drilling off our coast once and for all,” said Cunningham, who slammed offshore drilling efforts as “a hand-out to the oil and gas industries.”

Cunningham won his race in a major upset last November, due in no small part to his opposition to offshore drilling, which is unpopular in coastal South Carolina. And since his election, the moderate Democrat has emphasized his drilling stance, going so far as to literally bring an air horn to a subcommittee hearing earlier this month to emphasize the effects that loud seismic testing has on marine mammals.

“I’ve been clear from the very beginning that our beaches, businesses, and way of life should not be for sale. South Carolinians want nothing to do with offshore drilling and the devastating threat it poses to our vibrant natural resources,” Cunningham said Thursday.

Among the co-sponsors of the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection bill is Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL). His support signals the political realities of offshore drilling in coastal states, even those led by Republicans who traditionally support fossil fuels. Rooney has critiqued his party many times for failing to acknowledge climate change and push for action to address the phenomenon.

“This bill deserves the support of everyone who cares about healthy oceans, marine life, our coastal economies and all they support,” said Alexandra Adams, legislative director with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement.

But the Trump administration isn’t in line with those sentiments. Under former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the federal government announced plans in early 2018 to open virtually all U.S. waters up to offshore drilling. The still unreleased five-year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (OCS) — which would lay out the specifics of expanding offshore drilling — has been a source of controversy ever since.


That could spell trouble for Bernhardt, the former lobbyist Trump tapped to lead DOI. On Thursday during a Senate hearing on his nomination to lead the department, Bernhardt was confronted by skeptical senators on the issue.

“If a member of the New England delegation votes for your confirmation and then you move for offshore drilling, I don’t know if I can go home again,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME).

Maine was once the lone coastal holdout on offshore drilling under former Gov. Paul LePage (R), who supported the Trump administration’s efforts. But Gov. Janet Mills (D), who replaced LePage after the 2018 midterms, is a staunch opponent.

“Can I get your personal assurance here today that the position of the state’s congressional delegation will be a major consideration in making this decision?” King asked Bernhardt about the department’s decision-making on the issue. “Absolutely, it’s required,” replied Bernhardt.

Lawmakers, however, remain skeptical of DOI’s intentions. During the partial government shutdown in January, DOI called at least 40 employees back to work at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in an effort to keep drilling plans on track. That prioritization came at a time when offshore wind projects remained stalled. The decision also rankled many Democrats and a number have repeatedly probed Bernhardt’s moves during the shutdown.

With Republicans maintaining control of the Senate, lawmakers are likely to confirm Bernhardt. But the battle over offshore drilling isn’t going away — it could rear its head again in 2020, when voters head to the ballot box.


That reality could see more Republicans from coastal states following the lead of lawmakers like Rooney, who signed onto Thursday’s offshore drilling bill. Florida, for instance, approved a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling in November and the state has sought an exemption from the Trump administration’s plans. (Zinke promised the state one, but it is unclear if that pledge still holds.)

Meanwhile, in vulnerable South Carolina, where drilling could severely hurt tourism and wildlife, both the governor and attorney general have come out against drilling off the state’s coasts. Anti-drilling activists in the state have told ThinkProgress they plan to press the issue in 2020 and target lawmakers up for re-election who support offshore drilling efforts. And the bill introduced in the House this week may serve as an opportunity to test the commitment of lawmakers to opposing drilling ambitions.

Cunningham said he has spoken with both of his state’s senators, Lindsey Graham (R) and Tim Scott (R), about the issue. “Both of them realize that it’s the will of South Carolinians not to have offshore drilling,” he said, expressing that he expects them “to make the right call” if his bill advances to the Senate.

At DOI, meanwhile, the OCS program seems to have stalled. The proposed plan has largely been expected imminently, but Bernhardt appeared to backtrack on Thursday, stating that the process was at “step one, not step seven” in an abrupt about-face.

“We’re at the very beginning of our process,” he said during his hearing. “I don’t know what the timing is, because it’s not done to the point where they’re bringing it to me yet.”