The Trump administration presents the president’s executive order, the “America First Offshore Energy Strategy,” issued Friday, as a boon to American energy consumers. Among other things, it directs the Interior Department to review and revise its five-year offshore drilling plan, making a first step toward opening parts of the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans to oil and natural gas exploration and production. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says the order “puts us on track for American energy independence.” Since his campaign, Donald Trump has claimed boosting oil and gas drilling offshore will foster energy independence and benefit the economy. In fact, more offshore drilling will do neither.
Natural gas is most often used for electricity generation. All of our electricity is produced already domestically, whether it’s from gas, coal, nuclear, solar, hydropower or wind. Producing more gas just lowers the price and incentivizes utilities to favor natural gas over alternatives — both cleaner ones such as wind and solar, and Trump’s beloved coal.
Even if you look at all energy usage, not just electricity generation but also transportation, industrial activity, home heating and so on, the U.S. produces 91 percent of the energy it uses, according to the Energy Information Administration. Natural gas production has boomed in recent years, thanks to fracking opening up previously inaccessible reserves, sending prices down and consumption up.
With so much natural gas now available inland, why would gas companies want to deal with more complicated, expensive, and uncertain offshore exploration? To get their product into new markets.
Throughout the Obama administration, companies pushed to build pipelines to the coasts from the interior regions where natural gas was found, so that they can sell liquefied natural gas to Asia and Europe. But building all of that infrastructure is a politically problematic endeavor, as it often meets with local opposition from liberal coastal communities that would rather not have dangerous and polluting fossil fuel infrastructure run through their town. Offshore gas drilling, however, will already be on the coast, making it that much cheaper and easier to export.
But the energy-intensive process of freezing, shipping and reheating natural gas makes it especially bad for the climate.
As for oil, since it is a comparatively easy commodity to sell internationally, oil prices are set by global supply and global demand. An increase in domestic production only affects U.S. gasoline prices to the extent that it increases global supply. ExxonMobil isn’t bound to sell its offshore oil to refineries serving American drivers instead of Europeans or Asians, after all. That’s why an Associated Press analysis of 36 years of data found, “More oil production in the United States does not mean consistently lower prices at the pump.” This will be all the more true since Congress repealed the crude oil export ban in 2015.
Offshore drilling projects often take a long time to bear fruit, given our limited knowledge of how much oil and gas is even underneath the sea and the complexity of seismic testing and setting up offshore drilling rigs. In the Atlantic, the Interior Department estimates show there could be as little as 2 billion barrels, or about 100 days of oil at our current rate of usage. In 2015, just 0.1 percent of U.S. federal offshore crude production came from the Arctic.
And would we even benefit from more oil and gas supply 15 years from now? Not if we get serious about fighting climate change. To stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming over preindustrial temperatures, the U.S. must rapidly shift from gas and coal to clean sources of electricity and to electric cars.
As Barack Obama noted in December, when he, as president, protected most of the Arctic and much of the Atlantic from drilling: “It would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region — at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”
While offshore drilling won’t make us energy independent, it could actually harm many local communities. “Offshore drilling puts at risk huge established economies and ways of life, particularly in the Atlantic,” says Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters. “You’ve got huge tourism businesses and fishing threatened by spills or just the industrialization of the coast that goes along with drilling.”
In the Southeast Atlantic region, which is where Atlantic drilling would occur, tourism and recreation alone accounted for 309,633 jobs and $13 billion in gross domestic product in 2014, according to the National Ocean Economics Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
That’s why even Republican politicians and communities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida often oppose offshore drilling. Last year, when the Obama administration was considering including Atlantic drilling in its five-year DOI plan, Republicans such as Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina joined the resistance. More than 100 communities in the region passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling.
These states do not want to end up like Louisiana, which loses a football field’s worth of wetlands every 45 minutes, in large part because of the infrastructure of pipelines and canals needed to accommodate offshore drilling. Louisiana also experiences some 1,500 small oil spills every year, releasing an average of 330,000 gallons per year.
In the case of a major oil spill, the impact is catastrophic. The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico contaminated more than 1,300 miles of coastline, 3,200 square miles of the deep ocean floor, and 57,000 square miles of surface water. Some 22,000 tons of oil washed up on Gulf Coast shores. Marine mammal, fish, shellfish and bird populations subsequently declined and may never recover. The economic result of all this wreckage is an estimated $693.2 million in damages to the recreational industry and an estimated $247 million loss to the commercial fishing industry. And offshore rigs are becoming more vulnerable to accidents because climate change is causing more frequent and severe storms.
“People don’t view this as a risk they want to take,” said Alex Adams, an oceans advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The administration is barreling towards the past instead of preparing for the future.”