Zinke still wants to expand offshore drilling over opposition of 15 governors from coastal states

Protests expected at Interior Department's public meeting venues.

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

The Trump administration’s efforts to craft a five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan got off to a head-scratching start when less than a week into the process, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke removed the state of Florida from consideration after meeting with its governor.

The process has not gone any smoother over the past month, with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) attracting criticism for how it organized public meetings to receive feedback on the offshore drilling plan. The bureau is holding one hearing per coastal state from now until March, almost all in inland communities hours from the coast where people would be affected by drilling.

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In North Carolina, after meeting with Republican state lawmakers, Zinke was receptive to holding a second public meeting along the coast in Wilmington, North Carolina, to supplement the already-scheduled February 26 meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina. Officials in other states are questioning whether they will get the same treatment Zinke has granted Florida and North Carolina.

Across the country, the new offshore drilling plans haven’t received much support from local politicians. At least 15 governors of coastal states have publicly opposed the administration’s plans for offshore drilling — one third of these are Republicans. Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) is the only governor of a state under consideration in the plan who supports offshore drilling.

Zinke’s handling of the new five-year offshore leasing program, so far, “underscores how disorganized and uninterested this administration is in preserving our coastline or stewarding our public lands,” Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) immediately pushed back against the five-year plan, Zinke “jumps, flies down to Tallahassee, and says Florida is taken out of the plan,” said Manuel.

“The whole thing has been the Keystone Cops since the beginning,” he said, pointing to the decision to hold hearings in state capitals, not on the coasts. “It shows how incompetent the DOI has been since Zinke took over.”

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On Monday, the BOEM postponed its public meeting in Tacoma, Washington, explaining that the venue — the Landmark Convention Center — was no longer available. “The venue got incredibly paranoid about the possibility of protesters showing up,” Manuel said. The convention center had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

As the Trump administration crafts the five-year offshore leasing plan, there’s little doubt the oil and gas industry is the only constituent whose opinion matters to the Trump administration, Manuel contended. Opponents view the Interior Department as simply going through the motions by holding public hearings.

Despite Trump’s clear bias in favor of the oil and gas industry, offshore drilling opponents believe they can succeed in blocking the administration’s stated goal of opening 90 percent of the nation’s offshore areas to leasing. Hundreds of people, for example, are planning to show up at the BOEM meeting in Sacramento, California, on Thursday, to express their opposition to opening up waters off the coast of California to new oil and gas leases.

“We’re coming to Sacramento to reject a plan that will cause oil spills and climate chaos,” Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said Monday in a statement. “Californians fiercely oppose this reckless assault on our oceans and coastal communities.”

In January, BOEM released the new five-year drilling plan that opens up vast areas off the East Coast from Georgia to Maine that had been blocked from oil and gas exploration for decades. The plan also includes 19 lease sales off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, and nine in the Atlantic region.

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Aside from governors asking Zinke to grant them exemptions similar to the one he handed Florida, officials are also threatening lawsuits if the Interior Department moves forward with its drilling expansion. In Washington state, attorney general Bob Ferguson sent a letter to Zinke on Monday, opposing the proposal to allow oil and gas drilling off Washington’s coast.

“Were the department to grant one state an exemption without an identified process and established criteria, it would contravene the regulatory framework and processes that states rely on for fair and lawful treatment,” Ferguson wrote in the letter. “Thus, I ask that Washington receive the same exemption as Florida, and that no drilling or exploration be considered or take place off our coast.”

“If, on the other hand, the Department of Interior seeks to put Washington’s coastal communities at risk,” it continues, “my office will initiate litigation against the Department to protect our coast.”

In 2015, the Obama administration released a similar proposal to sell offshore oil and gas leases in new areas of federally owned waters, including regions along the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Georgia. In the face of strong opposition, the administration backed off, removing plans for oil and drilling off the southeast Atlantic coast.

Once again, activists and residents are organizing to protect coastlines from oil and gas drilling. The Sierra Club and other groups are pushing hard to take these areas out of the Trump administration’s five-year plan. “We want to see these areas permanently off limits to drilling,” Manuel said.

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BOEM is also scheduled on Thursday to hold a public meeting in Tallahassee, Florida, a state that the oil and industry is hoping Zinke brings back into play but which has been taken out of the current drilling plans. 

Manuel is skeptical the area will be opened up, citing drilling’s potential impact on tourism along Florida’s Gulf Coast and strong opposition from the Department of Defense, which conducts extensive training exercises in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. “That’s always been where they wanted to go,” he said. “But I don’t think they’re ever going to get into that area.”