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Trump Administration to Expand Drilling Off U.S. Continental Waters

"A recipe for disaster."

DARRYL FEARS, THE WASHINGTON POST
4 JAN 2018
 

The Trump administration unveiled a controversial proposal Thursday to permit drilling in most U.S. continental shelf waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, where oil and gas exploration is opposed by governors from New Jersey to Florida, nearly a dozen attorneys general, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers and the Defense Department.

 

Under the proposal, only one of 26 planning areas in the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean would be off limits to oil and gas exploration, according to Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke.

He said the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management has identified 47 potential areas where industry companies can buy leases between 2019 and 2024, when the proposed period would begin and end.

The Draft Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program was embraced by oil and gas industry groups but is expected to face withering opposition from a wide range of state officials and conservationists.

"Nothing is final," Zinke said in remarks at a news conference. "This is a draft program. The states, local communities and congressional delegations will all have a say" before the proposal becomes final in the coming months.

Zinke said the proposal is consistent with President Trump's executive order in April to widen energy exploration. He said it was a clear departure from the Obama administration's effort to protect areas rather than exploit them.

 

"This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance," the secretary said. He vowed that the Trump administration would heed environmental safeguards.

But potential environmental disasters are on the minds of numerous Atlantic coast governors who oppose drilling in four planning areas from Maine to the Florida Keys. In a resounding bi-partisan call, Republicans and Democrats have said in no uncertain terms that oil and gas drilling should not be allowed.

"I'm not in favor of offshore drilling," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has said. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) is opposed out of concern over drilling's impact on the state's natural resources.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fired off a letter to the Interior agency that issues permits saying the state "strongly opposes any waters off our coastline being considered for inclusion in this leasing program," citing its $44 billion beach tourism industry that creates more than 300,000 jobs.

The Democratic governors of North Carolina and Delaware are also opposed.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, where beach tourism on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts generates nearly $50 billion dollars and a half million jobs annually, according to a Florida Atlantic University report, said Thursday that he adamantly opposes drilling off the state's coast and requested a meeting with Zinke.

The Obama administration considered a 5-year plan to permit drilling in the southern Atlantic between Virginia and Georgia but abandoned it in March 2016 because of concerns raised states and the Navy, which conducts military exercises in a vast area of the ocean near those states.

A barrage of letters and comments from coastal communities opposed to the plan also played a role.

 

Zinke did not address potential conflicts with the Pentagon, but Kate McGregor, an assistant secretary, said that a task force has been established between Interior and the Defense Department to deal with them.

"We believe things can be done safely," McGregor said. "In fact, in the central Gulf of Mexico planning area, 36 percent of leases are in military planning areas. We intend to continue a very strong relationship with DoD."

The Defense Department did not immediately comment.

President Trump has extolled oil and gas exploration as part of an energy dominance agenda.

The administration made history last month with its proposal to open nearly 77 million more acres in the Gulf of Mexico to companies wanting to purchase federal oil and gas leases, the largest offering in U.S. history.

AR 170409903Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, off Louisiana, in April 2010. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard

Offshore drilling caused one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill of 215 million gallons of crude into the Gulf that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida. The effects of the spill are still being felt more than seven years later.

Hydrocarbons linked to the spill were detected in 90 percent of pelican eggs more than 1,000 miles away in Minnesota, scientists say.

 

Dolphins living in Barataria, La. have experienced mortality rates 8 percent higher than dolphin populations elsewhere, and their reproduction success dropped 63 percent. The well's owner, British Petroleum, has paid penalties in excess of $61 billion as of July 2016.

Two weeks ago, the Interior Department suspended a study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling platforms.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore leasing, promised that the environment would be protected.

"American energy production can be competitive while remaining safe and environmentally sound," Vincent DeVito, Interior's counselor for energy policy, said at the time.

"People need jobs, the Gulf Coast states need revenue, and Americans do not want to be dependent on foreign oil."

Oceana, a non-profit conservation group that monitors fisheries and pollution, called the proposal "a recipe for disaster."

Citing the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, Diane Hoskins, the group's campaign director, said, "This radical offshore drilling free-for-all is a clear example of politics over people, ignoring widespread local and state opposition."

A California conservation group cited polls showing that nearly 70 percent of Californians oppose offshore drilling and say beaches are important to its economy and quality of life.

"That's a significant majority willing to push back against those who would destroy them with new offshore oil drilling," said Jennifer Savage of the Surfrider Foundation.

But drilling also had supporters, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.).

"With this program, my constituents… whose jobs depend on the energy industry can rest easy knowing that oil and gas development is a priority for this administration," Scalise said.

"With increase exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond, we will be able to create more jobs and continue to receive revenue sharing that's vital to rebuilding our coast."

2017 © The Washington Post

This article was originally published by The Washington Post.