Administration Proposes Opening Nearly All U.S. Coastlines to Offshore Drilling

Over 90 percent of America’s waters will be available for oil and gas drilling under proposed plan

oil rig
Oil rig offshore of Huntington Beach, California Pete Markham

On Thursday, the administration announced a plan to allow offshore drilling for oil and gas along most of the United States coastlines, including previously protected marine areas. The move would reverse current protections in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans. The energy industry supports the proposal but coastal state leaders, local business groups, and environmental groups all stand in opposition.

Governors of coastal states including Florida, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, and Washington have voiced opposition to offshore drilling over the past year, reports Josh Siegel for the Washington Examiner. “They’ve chosen to forget the utter devastation of past offshore oil spills to wildlife and to the fishing, recreation and tourism industries in our states,” Governors Jerry Brown of California, Kate Brown of Oregon, and Jay Inslee of Washington write in a joint statement.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke advocates for the plan, but intends to consult with state leaders before finalizing any moves, reports Lisa Friedman for the New York Times, a process which may take 18 months to complete. “The process involves several rounds of public participation from stakeholders, including local communities,” says Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, as reported by Keith Schneider and Tony Barboza of the Los Angeles Times.

The plan reverses previous restrictions, opening up 25 of 26 offshore areas to drilling, including territories formerly protected by former President Barack Obama. The only area not included in the expanded drilling plan is the North Aleutian Basin, which was originally protected by an executive order from President George Bush, writes Friedman.

The newly expanded area would open over 90 percent of the outer continental shelf’s total acreage to drilling, writes Valerie Volcovici for Reuters. Interior officials intend to hold 47 lease sales between 2019 and 2024 for companies to bid on new territories for drilling. These sales will include 19 off the coast of Alaska, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, and 7 off the coast of California, Friedman reports. Several of the territories would be newly opened to drilling after protections set in place following major oil spills, report Schneider and Barboza, including the area of the 1969 spill in Santa Barbara and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

But putting territories up for sale may not result in drilling. In May 2016, Royal Dutch Shell relinquished all but one of its federal oil leases in Alaska. Despite being the only company to drill an exploratory well following 2008 lease sales, the company failed to find commercial quantities of oil, Dan Joling reported for the Associated Press at the time. The company was also concerned about high costs of operating in the remote region, a steep fall in oil prices since 2014, and uncertain operations when faced with changing federal regulations.

These concerns are still valid, leading to speculation that the new proposal is more symbolic than practical. As Jody Freeman, director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School and a former Obama climate adviser tells Friedman, “the decision is a signal, just like the one Congress sent with ANWR, that Republicans want to open the nation’s public lands and waters for business.” 

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