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Trump administration plan would widely expand drilling in U.S. continental waters

A boat with the nonprofit Clean Seas deploys a boom to contain an oil spill in 2015 north of Goleta, Calif. About 21,000 gallons spilled from an abandoned pipeline. (David McNew/Getty Images)

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 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 bipartisan call, Republicans and Democrats have said in no uncertain terms that oil and gas drilling should not be allowed.

“Protecting our environment and precious natural resources is a top priority for Governor Hogan and exactly why he has made clear that he opposes this kind of exploration off our coastline,” said Douglass Mayer, spokesman for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Mayer said Hogan directed his attorney general “to take any legal action necessary against the federal government to prevent this possible exploration.”

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

The Democratic governors of North Carolina and Delaware are also opposed. Gov. Rick Scott (R) 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 five-year plan to permit drilling in the Atlantic between Virginia and Georgia but abandoned it in March 2016 because of concerns raised by 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 the Interior and Defense departments 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.”

When the Obama administration proposed offshore oil and gas exploration for the Atlantic in 2016, the Defense Department made its concerns over its possible effect on training exercises and military readiness clear. Major joint service and fleet exercises “are fundamental to the ability of our airmen, sailors, and marines to attain and sustain the highest levels of military readiness,” a spokesman, Matthew Allen, said then.

Defense officials requested advance notice of activity in 90 percent of the potential lease areas to study possible obstructions on a case-by-case basis. But in response to the Trump administration’s plans to lease much larger areas of the Atlantic, Defense mentioned no such concerns.

“The Department of Defense recognizes that national security and energy security are inextricably linked and fully supports the development of our nation’s domestic energy resources in a manner that is compatible with military testing, training, and operations,” spokeswoman Laura Ochoa wrote in an email.

Trump has extolled oil and gas exploration as part of an energy-dominance agenda. The administration proposed opening 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.

Offshore drilling led to 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 of Mexico, fouling 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 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, BP, had 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, the Interior Department’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 nonprofit 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 the state’s 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, a policy manager with the Surfrider Foundation.

Drilling also has 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 increased 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.”

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