Trump releases ‘radical’ plan to open nearly all federal waters to offshore drilling

The offshore leasing proposal faces bipartisan resistance.

A Shell offshore drilling and production platform, located about 200 miles southwest of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico, is the world's deepest offshore rig. CREDIT: Gary  Tramontina/Corbis via Getty Images
A Shell offshore drilling and production platform, located about 200 miles southwest of Houston in the Gulf of Mexico, is the world's deepest offshore rig. CREDIT: Gary Tramontina/Corbis via Getty Images

In a new five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan released Thursday, the Trump administration proposed opening up nearly all federal waters to drilling, including the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts where oil and gas activities are strongly opposed by lawmakers and the public.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the draft five-year leasing plan, from 2019 to 2024, would open 90 percent of the nation’s offshore areas to leasing. The plan calls for 47 possible auctions of drilling rights in the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. The plan would include 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.

“This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed,” Zinke said on a Thursday press call.

All three governors on the West Coast oppose expanded offshore oil and gas drilling. On the Atlantic Coast, a long bipartisan list of state and local lawmakers are against drilling. The Trump administration also proposed opening up the eastern Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida, where lawmakers — including the state’s Republican governor — strongly oppose drilling.


Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) said in a statement that he has asked to immediately meet with Zinke to discuss removing offshore Florida waters from consideration for oil and gas drilling. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus who introduced a bill earlier this year to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, stated in a tweet that he is “100 percent opposed” to drilling off the coast of Florida.

The unexpected breadth of the Department of the Interior proposal comes in response to Trump’s executive order in April, which encouraged more drilling rights in federal waters. “This is a draft program,” Zinke said in the conference call with reporters. “Nothing is final yet, and our department is continuing to engage the American people to get to our final product.”

The department said it received about 816,000 comments from state governments, federal agencies, public interest groups, industry, and the public as it put together the five-year offshore plan. Trump administration officials are known for listening primarily to business interests. Zinke reportedly spent much of his first couple of months at the Interior Department meeting with industry groups.


Environmental and conservation groups joined lawmakers in opposing the five-year plan. “This radical offshore drilling free-for-all is a clear example of politics over people, ignoring widespread local and state opposition,” Diane Hoskins, a campaign director for the marine conservation group Oceana, said in a statement. “The Trump administration’s plan not only ignores the risky nature of dirty and dangerous drilling, but also the people and coastal businesses who would be most affected.”

The leasing plan, overseen by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), would replace the current five-year plan finalized last January by the Obama administration and scheduled to run through 2022.

The Trump administration’s five-year proposal will be subject to a 60-day public comment period. After taking public comments, officials must revise it and release a new proposal and then finalize it, a process that could take more than a year. During the process, Interior officials can remove areas from consideration for drilling, but cannot make new areas available.

The offshore leasing plan was released a week after the Trump administration proposed weakening the rules for offshore drilling safety equipment. Last month, the Interior Department also put the brakes on a study that would review and evaluate how the agency conducts its inspections of offshore oil and gas operations.

Last summer, the Interior Department published a “request for information” from coastal and ocean stakeholders in the Federal Register. The department initiated what it said will be a two-to-three year long process to develop a new five-year plan for offshore drilling. The 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 past two years have seen an unprecedented outcry against drilling. Communities up and down the Atlantic coast have passed resolutions against drilling. During the Obama administration, opponents to drilling, who fear 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.


Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) joined with Republican governors of other Southeastern states to oppose offshore drilling. In August, McAuliffe announced that he had sent a letter to BOEM stating his opposition to including Virginia in the new review of the national offshore oil and gas leasing program called for by Trump. Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam also is opposed to drilling off the coast of Virginia.

The Obama administration considered including Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in its last five-year oil and gas leasing plan but ultimately rejected the proposal amid strong opposition in coastal communities.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) also have come out against oil and gas exploration off their states’ coasts.

On the same day Trump signed his offshore drilling executive order last spring, Tea Party stalwart Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) introduced the Coastal Economies Protection Act, a bill that would ban offshore drilling in Atlantic coastal waters and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for the next 10 years. The legislation was co-sponsored by another Republican, Rep. Frank LoBiondo (NJ).

On the West Coast, the waters off California have not been made available to companies for new drilling leases in decades. State officials grew nervous about drilling after a 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, one of the worst in the country’s history. Since the Santa Barbara disaster, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state have united to fight attempts to increase offshore drilling.