Public meetings for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year offshore drilling plan wrapped up last week, but opposition to the plan — which would open nearly all federal waters to oil and gas extraction — doesn’t appear to be quieting down.
The proposal, first made public in January, would open up 90 percent of the nation’s offshore areas to oil and gas leasing. At the time, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke touted the proposal as offering “the largest number of lease sales ever proposed.”
But as the Department of the Interior concludes its 60-day public comment period for the proposal, a number of local and state representatives, religious leaders, and environmental groups are pushing to make sure that their opposition to the offshore drilling plan is made clear.
On March 9, attorneys general from 12 states 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. The attorneys general also argued that offshore drilling could compromise sensitive coastal ecosystems and marine economies in the affected states.
The attorneys general join a number of politicians — both in office currently and retired — who have voiced opposition to the plan.
Last Friday, Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) sent a letter to Zinke requesting clarification on what the secretary intends to do with Florida, which had originally been included in the proposal but was temporarily removed less than a week into the public comment period.
At the time, Zinke said that he had chosen to remove Florida because the state “is unique and its coasts are highly reliant on tourism as an economic driver” — reasoning that legal experts warned could open the department up to legal action. Since then, an Interior Department official has said that Florida is still being considered for potential offshore leases.
Nelson’s letter sought clarification as to whether Florida would indeed be exempt from the proposal, and reiterated the senator’s opposition to offshore drilling along the state’s coasts.
“I absolutely oppose opening up the Atlantic to drilling, as well as any part of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico currently under moratorium,” Nelson wrote.
The proposal previously 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.
Even Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) — who has previously supported opening Florida to more offshore drilling — has voiced opposition to Trump’s plan, though some have suggested that the moderation could be part of a pivot aimed at boosting support ahead of his expected Senate campaign later this year.
The administration’s proposed plan has also garnered opposition from religious groups. Last week, 34 religious leaders in North Carolina signed a letter in opposition to the proposal. “God entrusts us to be good stewards of God’s oceans and coasts,” the letter read. “We should honor this sacred duty and position our country as a global leader in energy stewardship.”
The coalition represents part of a broader movement of more than 300 religious leaders taking a stand against the proposal to open federal waters to offshore drilling, and is part of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
The administration’s proposed offshore leasing plan has also raised objections from opponents concerned that the expansion of drilling in federal waters could come at the same time that the administration is proposing rolling back regulations that govern drilling safety.
The administration has proposed repealing several offshore drilling regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, that killed 11 people and resulted in some 4 million barrels of oil being released into the Gulf of Mexico — the largest oil spill in history.
The agency 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.
“The Trump administration is putting Florida’s Panhandle at increased risk for the next BP-style blowout by expanding the reach of oil and gas drilling while rolling back common-sense safeguards drawn from the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham (D) and Frances Beinecke wrote in an op-ed in the Pensacola News Journal. Beinecke served on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling,
“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it is that we must do more to protect our workers, waters, wildlife and the economy from the hazards of offshore drilling.”
Now that the public comment period has closed, the Department of Interior will review the proposal and, potentially, make changes to the areas offered for oil and gas leases. A final plan describing where proposed auctions would be held will likely be released sometime in early 2019. Congress will then have 60 days to review the plan. The plan will govern leases from 2019 to 2024.