Bipartisan effort emerges countering Trump on offshore drilling

Coastal states are almost unanimously opposed to such efforts by the White House.

Aerial view of an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. CREDIT: Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images
Aerial view of an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. CREDIT: Julie Dermansky/Corbis via Getty Images

A North Carolina Republican and a Virginia Democrat introduced a bipartisan bill on Tuesday in an effort to counter offshore drilling efforts along the Atlantic Coast. The issue of coastal drilling has become increasingly contentious as the Trump administration has pushed for its expansion.

Reps. Donald McEachin (D-VA) and Walter B. Jones (R-NC) introduced the Defend Our Coast Act on Tuesday afternoon, which would amend the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The bill would prohibit the Department of the Interior from “issuing leases for the exploration, development or production of oil and gas” on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Mid-Atlantic, including the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware.

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“Offshore drilling could negatively impact coastal communities in my district and the Mid-Atlantic coastline. As we know all too well, from prior tragedies such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, accidents can be dangerous, expensive, life-threatening and leave us with years of negative ramifications,” said McEachin in a statement.

The Deepwater Horizon spill occurred in 2010 when a BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico spilled nearly five million barrels of crude oil into the area’s waters. That marine spill is considered the worst in U.S. history and impacted the entire Gulf Coast, releasing so much oil that could the spill could be seen from outer space. The health and environmental impacts of the spill are still being felt nearly a decade later.

“Offshore drilling in the Mid-Atlantic is nothing but a gift to oil and gas companies. If we open our oceans to drilling — oil and gas companies, lobbyists, and corporate executives stand to gain at the expense of American citizens,” McEachin continued. “My constituents are eager for renewable energy sources, and they do not want to destroy our pristine coasts, risk accidents and hinder critical military exercises.”

Under President Trump, offshore drilling efforts have gained traction despite widespread opposition from states and environmental activists. In January, Trump proposed opening virtually all federal waters to drilling, including the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Under that five-year leasing plan, spanning from 2019 to 2024, some 90 percent of U.S. offshore areas would open to drilling.

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On the West Coast, efforts to expand offshore drilling have been met with vicious opposition, with the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington all opposed. The more politically diverse Atlantic Coast has shown similar resistance, with a lengthy bipartisan list of state and local lawmakers all in opposition to the Trump administration’s plans. Exactly one Atlantic Coast governor, Maine’s Paul LePage (R), has indicated his support for offshore drilling.

Public opinion on offshore drilling meanwhile remains overwhelmingly negative and at least one survey published in May by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland found that more than 60 percent of voters oppose lifting the ban on offshore oil drilling.

And according to a report last month, Trump’s plan also threatens scores of national parks, including the Channel Islands National Park in California, the Everglades in Florida, and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The National Parks Conservation Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) May report argued that the burning of fossil fuels in offshore areas could expose protected natural areas to both sea level rise and storm surges exacerbated by climate change.

In an effort to push back against the administration’s efforts to open up coastal waters to oil and gas lawmakers are increasingly turning to their own devices, as demonstrated by bipartisan efforts like the bill introduced Tuesday.

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In New Jersey, legislators unanimously passed the nation’s toughest offshore oil drilling legislation in April, banning both drilling and natural gas exploration in coastal waters. Only one lawmaker, Parker Space (R), voted against that bill.

California is also moving closer to uniformly rejecting any such efforts in its own waters. Last week, the state’s Senate and Assembly passed two bills effectively banning offshore drilling, in a direct blow to the Trump administration. That legislation will likely be finalized in August by the wider California legislature.

The bipartisan bill introduced on Tuesday, however, emerged on the same day that the American Petroleum Institute (API) announced a new coalition in support of offshore drilling. The Explore Offshore initiative aims to argue the benefits of drilling, presenting such efforts as an economic opportunity.

“In order to responsibly plan for tomorrow we must continue to explore safely and develop oil and natural gas resources today to ensure America’s economic future,” former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson told reporters Wednesday. Nicholson is helping to head the API initiative.

That effort will focus on the Southeast, namely the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida — overlapping with the same region lawmakers are working to protect from offshore drilling.