Trump looks to boost offshore drilling in protected waters with new executive order

As with many of Trump’s orders, it is expected to trigger lawsuits.

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in March. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stands behind him. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
President Donald Trump signs an executive order in March. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke stands behind him. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

During his campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly pledged to open federal waters to more offshore drilling on “day one.”

But because nobody knew how complicated setting policy can be, that move is coming on day 99 of the Trump presidency. On Friday, Trump will issue an executive order directing the Department of the Interior to review U.S. policies on offshore drilling, including an Obama-era move to block the entire Eastern Seaboard from offshore drilling.

“President Trump will continue on the success of his first 100 days in office and sign the America First Offshore Energy Executive Order,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters during a Thursday evening press briefing. “This order will cement our nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security for the benefit of American people without removing any of the stringent environmental safeguards that are currently in place.”

The order also directs the Secretary of Commerce to review maritime monuments and sanctuaries designated under the Antiquities Act in the last 10 years, which will include a portion of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic, not including the Gulf of Mexico, was left out of the most recent five-year leasing plan from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). An early draft of the 2017–2022 plan had proposed offering oil leases in an area off the Southeastern states. That proposal launched a massive grassroots opposition movement.

BOEM eventually concluded that the Atlantic should not be included in the plan, in part because of local opposition, but also because the Department of Defense has opposed oil development off the Eastern Seaboard.

During the last years of the Obama administration, more than 100 towns and municipalities along the Atlantic coast — including the entire coastline of South Carolina — passed local resolutions against oil drilling or seismic testing, a pre-drilling activity that uses massive sonic blasts to test the composition of the ground beneath the ocean floor. Seismic testing has itself been a sensitive issue in the region, since it can disturb the fishing and wildlife that are critical to tourism and commercial fishing interests.

Zinke avoided saying whether the administration would definitely pursue Atlantic offshore drilling on Thursday, but he was more forthright about testing. “Seismic? No doubt,” Zinke told reporters.

But in the seven years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, the local appetite for risk has not increased.

“The opposition to drilling off the Atlantic Coast has just gotten stronger over the past year,” Frank Knapp, founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, told ThinkProgress. Knapp’s group, which just added the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, represents 41,000 businesses, mostly from New Jersey to Florida, as well as 500,000 fishing families that depend on the Atlantic for their livelihoods.

A protester outside the White House in 2016 calls for a ban on offshore drilling. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
A protester outside the White House in 2016 calls for a ban on offshore drilling. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Knapp and his group talk not only about the risks of drilling, but also the reality of drilling. The Eastern Seaboard is remarkably lovely. Oil infrastructure is industrial.

“Where on the Atlantic Coast are we going to have industrialized areas? What community is going to volunteer for this?” Knapp asked. “Where along the South Carolina coast are you going to industrialize and push out the tourism?”

Just this week, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced a bill to ban seismic testing in the Atlantic, which would put a damper on any development. On the other side of the Capitol, a group of 27 senators — all Democrats — wrote a letter to Zinke on Thursday, opposing opening new areas for offshore drilling. They also introduced a bill that would prohibit the administration from reviewing the current five-year plan.

While that move is unlikely to gain traction, opposition to offshore drilling has a remarkable amount of bipartisanship, advocates say.

“We’ve seen so many coastal, Republican members of Congress look to their beach communities,” Oceana’s Nancy Pyne told ThinkProgress. Knapp’s business group, too, is not politically aligned.

As with many of Trump’s executive orders, it is hard to say what policy may actually come out of Friday’s announcement. It takes years to develop a five-year plan.

The administration will be wasting no time, though, in touting its oil industry-friendly approach. On Monday, Zinke will appear in Houston as “a featured speaker at the Offshore Technology Conference,” discussing “President Trump’s strategy for achieving energy independence, bringing jobs back to communities across the country, and working more effectively with industry to expand oil and gas development in federal waters.”