Trump’s administration pursues radical expansion of offshore drilling

Despite spill risks, bipartisan opposition, Trump’s Department of Interior is moving forward with offshore drilling plans.

CREDIT: Gerald Herbert/AP/AP
CREDIT: Gerald Herbert/AP/AP

New offshore oil drilling in Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific waters may be the next phase in President Donald Trump’s new “energy dominance” strategy, based on an official federal notice published Monday.

Following pledges last week by Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to seek “energy dominance” through large increases in fossil fuel extraction, the Trump administration issued a formal notice that it has begun a process it hopes will dramatically expand offshore oil and gas drilling throughout United States waters.

By publishing the “request for information” from coastal and ocean stakeholders in the Federal Register, the Interior Department initiated what it says will be a two-to-three year long process to develop a new five-year plan for offshore drilling. The Interior Department is legally required to publish five-year plans that specify where and when sales of offshore drilling leases — and therefore future drilling activity — will occur.

The expansive new planning effort largely duplicates work by the previous administration, which finalized a five-year plan for 2017 to 2022. That plan, which is currently active, took three years to develop and incorporated more than one million public comments submitted to the Interior Department. Under the plan, 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one in the Cook Inlet in southwest Alaska were scheduled over the five-year period. David Hayes, a former Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Interior Department, noted the potential internal impact of the decision, within the context of the Trump administration’s proposed federal budget cuts. “At the same time that the [Interior] Department is proposing to cut 2,000 National Park Service jobs, it is committing money, time, and personnel to overturn an offshore plan that is not due to expire until 2022,” he said.

During that Obama administration’s five-year planning process, it considered new lease sales in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. In the Arctic, the failure of the Shell oil company to safely or successfully develop offshore leases it bought during the George W. Bush administration, despite $7 billion in investment and being one of the world’s largest and most experienced drillers, combined with extraordinary backlash from the public to largely extinguish industry interest in all but a few nearshore areas of the Arctic coast. In the Atlantic, extraordinary grassroots- and bipartisan opposition to offshore oil and gas development due to the devastating impact a major oil spill would have on recreation, tourism, fishing, and other existing coastal industries, convinced officials to exclude Atlantic lease sales from the final drilling plan.

The launch of the fossil fuel “dominance” oriented re-do of the five-year plan indicates the Trump administration officials are set to ignore existing analysis and large blocs of opposition, and instead attempt to follow through on earlier suggestions that their goal is new lease sales and new drilling throughout these highly controversial ocean areas.

At an offshore oil and gas industry conference in May, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Katherine MacGregor linked the Trump administration’s slogan to expansion of drilling activity. “We cannot achieve energy dominance without a vibrant offshore energy economy,” she said. “We need to signal that new areas are open.”

MacGregor indicated that federal officials could also seek to override the vehement, largely unanimous opposition to new federal drilling off the Pacific coast among West Coast governors and other statewide elected officials, which has warded off new offshore development there since the 1980s. “The secretary [Zinke] has had quite a few questions about California, and other areas that seem to come up every time you talk about a five-year plan,” she said.

The Trump administration’s push for new drilling in these areas, despite the essentially inevitable new oil spills that accompany offshore oil and gas production, will not be easy, however. For example, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who has eagerly confronted the Trump administration on its rollbacks of environmental protections and federal climate policy, made clear in December his government’s perception of the threat.

“California is blessed with hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline; home to scenic state parks, beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife and thriving communities,” Brown wrote in a December 2016 letter to President Obama. “Clearly, [development of] large new oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with our overriding imperative to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and combat the devastating impacts of climate change.”

Meanwhile, 109 bipartisan members of the House of Representatives and 27 senators recently signed letters urging Zinke to carry out the existing five-year plan, rather than start over for the purposes of expanding offshore drilling.

Environmental organizations — no strangers to litigation against unsafe offshore oil and gas development — are also gearing up for the fight.

Erik Grafe, an attorney with public interest law firm Earthjustice, conveyed their perspective in a press statement.

“There is no good reason for the Trump administration to abandon this [Obama administration] plan and replace it with something that will jeopardize our oceans for generations to come,” he said. “We will resist this attempt to sacrifice the health of our coastal communities, wildlife and climate all for the benefit of the oil industry.”