Ryan Zinke unveils plan to offer leases in Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic while environmental groups and some Republicans lead outcry
January 4, 2018 — The Trump administration has unveiled a plan that would open almost all US offshore territory to oil and gas drilling, including previously protected areas of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans.
Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, said a new oil and gas leasing programme, which would run from 2019 to 2024, would make more than 90% of the outer continental shelf available for what would be the largest ever number of lease sales to fossil fuel companies.
The draft plan includes nearly 50 lease sales in all but one of 26 planning areas in US waters, including 19 sales off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and nine in the Atlantic. The plan reverses protections put in place by the Obama administration and would introduce drilling for the first time to the Atlantic seaboard – a prospect fiercely opposed by communities along the east coast.
“We want to grow our nation’s offshore energy industry, instead of slowly surrendering it to foreign shores,” Zinke said. “This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance. Under President Trump we’re going to have the strongest energy policies and be the strongest energy superpower.”
Zinke said any drilling would be done in an environmentally sustainable way and that the plan will be subject to a “lengthy and robust” public comment period. But the prospect of oil rigs deployed across huge areas of US territorial waters brought immediate condemnation from an unlikely alliance of environmental groups and some senior Republicans.
Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, said he opposed drilling off the state’s coast due to environmental concerns.
“I have already asked to meet immediately with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the critical need to remove Florida from consideration,” Scott said.
Other states reacted with hostility to the new plan, with the governors of New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina all expressing concerns about the potential impact upon marine ecosystems and coastal economies that rely on tourism and fishing. The governors of west coast states – California, Washington and Oregon – have also condemned the prospect of drilling in the Pacific for the first time since 1984.
Opponents of drilling have raised the spectre of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. The incident on the BP rig caused 215m gallons of crude oil to flood into the gulf, coating beaches and seabirds and leaving a toxic legacy that is still felt. BP has paid more than $60bn in penalties since the disaster.
“Trump’s trying to turn our oceans into oilfields,” said Kristen Monsell, ocean program legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “His reckless plan would expose more wildlife and coastal communities to devastating oil spills.
“Offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous and many coastal communities want no part of it. Letting the oil industry loose in our oceans will mean more deadly disasters like the Deepwater Horizon. And when those big oil spills happen in the Arctic, they’ll be impossible to clean up.
“This appalling plan should be a call to action for everyone who wants to move past the dirty energy and politics of the past.”
Shortly before leaving office, Barack Obama made 115m acres (47m hectares) of waters off Alaska and 3.8m (1.5m hectares) acres in the Atlantic from New England to Virginia off limits for drilling, citing fragile ecosystems and public sentiment for the decision.
By contrast, Zinke has proposed that just one area, off the coast of Alaska, be safeguarded from drilling – because it was protected by an executive order issued by George W Bush.
It is unclear how many companies will bid for leases once they are offered, given the current low price of oil. But some Republicans have voiced optimism that an expansion in drilling will spur economic activity, despite the potential fallout for coastal towns and marine life.
Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who is House majority whip, said the plan was “yet another positive step” by Trump towards “American energy dominance”.
“With increased exploration and production in the Gulf and beyond, Louisiana will see more jobs and continue to receive the revenue sharing that is vital to rebuilding our coast,” he said.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which will oversee the leasing process, is to hold a 60-day period of public comment on the plan.