Despite long-standing opposition to offshore drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Trump administration issued an executive order late last month aimed at expanding offshore drilling and exploration in U.S. waters. The order calls for a review of the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program, potentially expanding offshore drilling to new areas along the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific coasts, as well as the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. It also directs the administration to streamline the permitting process for seismic airgun blasting and takes aim at offshore drilling safeguards, including the Well Control Rule, issued to help prevent future BP Deepwater Horizon-like disasters. The order flies in the face of overwhelming opposition and seeks to overturn the previous Administration’s five-year plan that was the culmination of years of rigorous analysis and stakeholder input.
Refresher on the rules for offshore oil and gas development
The federal government manages the submerged lands off the United States’ coasts, referred to as the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The OCS begins at the state boundary, typically three nautical miles (nm) from the shoreline, and extends 200 nm seaward. The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) gives the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) the authority to manage the development of offshore energy resources, through a planning process that weighs stakeholder input, environmental risks, conflicting uses, and a number of other factors to set up a schedule of oil and gas lease sales to meet national energy needs. Similarly, but along a separate track, the federal government also oversees the process for offshore oil and gas exploration, including seismic airgun blasting.
Rewind to the Obama administration
In 2013, BOEM began considering an area twice the size of California, from Cape Canaveral, Florida to Cape May, New Jersey for seismic airgun blasting. In 2014, BOEM began the separate decision-making process for offshore drilling. After two years, the administration came to the sound conclusion to remove the Atlantic from the 2017-2022 OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program, citing strong local opposition, conflicts with other ocean uses like military activities, as well as market dynamics. Following this decision, BOEM denied all pending seismic airgun blasting permits in the Atlantic, stating that the value of obtaining information about oil and gas resources did not outweigh the risks to marine life. Rounding out these moves to protect ocean resources and to solidify a clean energy future for America, the Obama administration protected important areas of the Atlantic and Arctic from future offshore drilling, including 3.8 million acres of underwater canyons in the Atlantic and 98 percent of U.S.-controlled Arctic waters (115 million acres).
Where are we now?
While areas of the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific, and Arctic oceans are all at risk in light of this directive, the federal government is still legally bound by OCSLA to follow a step by step planning process before issuing any leases, which should take at least 18 months. With regards to exploration, however, BOEM and the National Marine Fisheries Service will work to expedite the approval of seismic survey permit applications, which means dangerous seismic airgun blasting could move forward in the Atlantic very soon.
The executive order also requires a rapid review of the few safeguards implemented in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in order to improve worker safety, air quality, and shift financial responsibility to the offshore oil and gas industry. Rules that could be rolled back include: (1) the Well Control Rule which addresses deficiencies like the failure of the blowout preventer that resulted in the BP disaster (2) a proposed rule to reduce air pollution from offshore oil and gas operations, (3) a rule to make exploratory drilling in the Arctic less risky and (4) a policy requiring oil companies to reserve more capital for decommissioning infrastructure.
And to top it all off, the executive order prioritizes energy development over all other uses, including conserving publicly owned lands and waters. Before future national marine sanctuaries are designated or expanded, DOI must evaluate potential energy or mineral resources in the area, in addition to evaluating all the national marine monuments and sanctuaries that have been designated over the past 10 years. Finally, President Trump is attempting to undo the protections President Obama issued for important areas of the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
New ball game, and the stakes are even higher.
We face a new President who’s taking another crack at drilling off our coasts; however, the reasons behind the federal government’s past decision to remove the Atlantic and Arctic oceans from consideration, as well as to deny seismic blasting permits, remain the same. Local opposition to oil and gas activities is stronger than ever, with public opposition from over 120 East Coast municipalities, more than 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing over 41,000 coastal businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families.
For the East Coast alone, ocean-dependent tourism, recreation, and fishing are top economic drivers, supporting nearly 1.4 million jobs and bringing in over $95 billion in GDP annually. These thriving industries rely on clean water and healthy coastal ecosystems, which would be directly threatened by the industrialization of coastal communities, chronic oil spills and looming threat of another BP-like disaster. In 2010, even the perception of an oil spill caused a decline in tourism revenue for cities in Florida that didn’t have a drop of oil reach their shores.
Just last year, the Department of Defense (DOD) identified significant acreage of the proposed Atlantic drilling area that is incompatible with DOD activities and should not be made available for oil and gas development. NASA also voiced concern that oil and gas development would impact their mission activities at Wallops Flight Facility, a site that plays a vital role in America’s aerospace and science research.
And finally, it’s not a wise business decision to invest in risky and short-term drilling operations in new areas. Existing market dynamics have not changed since the past decision against offshore drilling. The U.S. has experienced a glut of oil and gas production in recent years, and this increased onshore production coupled with persistently low oil prices reduces the need for new offshore development. Even if all the economically recoverable oil and gas reserves off the Atlantic coast were fully exploited, they would meet domestic demand for a mere 5 and 10 months, respectively.
Want to join the fight? Join Oceana and our allies on Saturday, May 20th at a beach near you and participate in the seventh annual Hands Across the Sand. We’ll be gathering across the country to say “no to offshore drilling, and yes to clean energy!” RSVP here.
Coastal residents and business leaders are more ready than ever to stand up to protect our coast. Make YOUR voice heard here.