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Trump signs executive order to expand drilling off America’s coasts: ‘We’re opening it up.’

Trump signs order authorizing offshore oil drilling (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump signed an executive order Friday that aims to expand offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, as well as assess whether energy exploration can take place in marine sanctuaries in the Pacific and Atlantic.

The “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” will make millions of acres of federal waters eligible for oil and gas leasing, just four months after President Barack Obama withdrew these areas from possible development. In late December, Obama used a little-known provision in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to bar energy exploration in large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and a string of canyons in the Atlantic stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia.

At the signing in the Roosevelt Room, where the audience included Vice President Pence and members of Congress, Trump emphasized that the U.S. has abundant offshore oil and gas reserves, “but the federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production, and when they say closed, they mean closed.”

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Noting that the lawmakers needed to return to Capitol Hill to approve a stopgap measure to keep the federal government open, Trump said, “We can’t spend too much time talking about drilling in the Arctic, right? And we’re opening it up.”

Still, even Trump administration officials said it would take years to rewrite federal leasing plans and open up these areas to drilling. And global energy prices may deter investors from moving ahead with additional drilling in the Arctic Ocean in the near term, despite the effort to make more areas eligible for development.

Speaking to reporters Thursday night, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said it would likely take about two years to do a thorough review of what new areas could be put up for auction.

Still, on Friday, Pence described the order as “an important step toward American energy independence” that would generate additional U.S. jobs.

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Environmental groups decried the policy shift as reckless and possibly illegal.

Kristen Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement, “In no point in history has a president challenged another administration’s permanent withdrawals. Trump’s action could set a dangerous precedent, which will only undermine the powers of the office of the president.”

And Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said that when it came to the Arctic, “the chance of a tragic spill in those remote, icy waters is simply too high, and the impacts to marine life and the pristine coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be devastating.”

The order, Williams added, “amounts to another brazen power grab for the oil lobby that we, and the American people, will oppose.”

Industry officials hailed the new directive as an important corrective to Obama’s overly restrictive approach to energy policy.

“We are pleased to see this administration prioritizing responsible U.S. energy development and recognizing the benefits it will bring to American consumers and businesses,” said American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard in a statement. “Developing our abundant offshore energy resources is a critical part of a robust, forward-looking energy policy that will secure our nation’s energy future and strengthen the U.S. energy renaissance.

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But in a sign of how the oil and gas industry’s economic interests may still be at odds with federal policy, Gerard said, “We must particularly look to and embrace the future development of domestic sources of oil and natural gas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.” Administration officials, however, said that the order does not require leasing in the eastern Gulf, which many Floridians oppose.

Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said the U.S. is the only country in the Atlantic Basin that closes off “94 percent of its Outer Continental Shelf” to exploration.

“I’m quite optimistic” about future development, Luthi said. “The Arctic still holds a lot of promise.”

Officials in Alaska embrace the idea of expanded offshore drilling, while many in the Southeast — including some prominent Republicans in South Carolina and North Carolina — oppose it. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) applauded the order, saying in a statement, “State governments have been eager to explore offshore, but the Obama administration blocked them from allowing it. Harnessing our nation’s energy resources creates jobs and gives us leverage on the foreign stage. President Trump gets this.”

In addition to reviewing what drilling can take place off Alaska and the East Coast, the new directive charges Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to halt the expansion of any new marine sanctuaries and review the designations of any marine national monument established or expanded in the last decade. That includes Hawaii’s Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which Obama quadrupled in size last year, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts off Massachusetts.

According to a White House fact sheet, no national marine sanctuary can be designated or expanded “unless the sanctuary designation or expansion proposal includes a timely, full accounting from the Department of Interior of any energy or mineral resource potential within the designated area and the potential impact the proposed designation or expansion will have on the development of those resources.”

Richard Charter, a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation, said in an email that this means the administration could be reviewing the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the Sonoma and Southern Mendocino Coast, as well as the expansion of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

“Each of America’s national marine sanctuaries is the product of decades of bipartisan consultation with elected officials at all levels, ocean businesses, governors, and members of Congress, individually created using sound scientific groundwork to set aside recognized national treasures,” Charter said. “And these waters are clearly the absolute last place Trump should even consider for dangerous offshore drilling.”

Zinke told reporters that he understood environmentalists’ worries about expanded drilling. “That’s a valid concern, and a concern the president and I both share,” he said. “America leads the world in environmental protection, and I assure you we will continue that mission.”