Donald Trump Reverses Offshore Drilling Ban, Orders a "Bow to Stern" Review of Regulations

While there are ample oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico like the one pictures in Corpus Christi, Texas, the coasts have been largely off-limits for oil exploration. Trump is signaling a hope to reverse that. Credit: Getty Images

On Friday President Trump signed an executive order mandating a review of the latest five-year plan for offshore natural gas and oil leasing, which the Obama administration finalized in November, as well as all regulations related to leasing energy development, including wind, in federal waters. The order also reverses President Obama’s ban on offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off northern Alaska.

In a Thursday evening briefing, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters that the order will touch off a “bow to stern” review of all his department’s regulations and permitting processes related to offshore seismic testing and energy development, one that the administration believes will create thousands of energy-sector jobs while increasing the security of the nation’s oil and gas supplies.

The secretary insists that expanding oil and gas development does not contradict the Interior Department’s stewardship mandate for federal lands and waters. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East,” he said. “It is better to produce energy here, under reasonable regulations, than to have it produced overseas under no regulations.”

Asked how the process would account for climate change, “I have not thought about climate change,” Zinke answered.

The current five-year plan “remains in existence, so there is no immediate change,” Zinke added. “My task is to review the five-year plan. This is going to embark on a multi-year effort.”

The political environment has changed since January 2015, when the Obama administration first proposed around a dozen Atlantic offshore oil and gas leases. “The governors of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia all requested that the Obama administration consider drilling in these states,” says Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Most of those governors have since departed office — South Carolina’s Nikki Haley is now the Trump administration’s ambassador to the United Nations — and the new office-holders seem less convinced about the benefits of offshore drilling.

“The Atlantic [is] a place where commercial-scale production has never occurred. There’s really not the infrastructure here for that to happen,” Weaver says, and creating it would threaten important existing economic engines like fishing and tourism.

Coastal bird and turtle habitats, fish stocks, and other wildlife — and the numerous businesses that cater to folks who come to enjoy them — would all be facing new risks from major oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as well smaller, less attention-grabbing spills that happen regularly in the Gulf of Mexico, she notes.

Coastal residents learned how to be heard on these issues locally and in Washington, D.C, during the creation of the current five-year plan. “The Southeast communities are standing up and saying, ‘not us, not here,’ ” adds Weaver.

Near-historic low oil and gas prices on the national and international markets have made the costs and risks of offshore drilling uncompetitive in many regions — something President Obama noted when he decided not to open these areas.

In addition to reviewing the current five-year offshore drilling plan, the executive order blocks the creation or expansion of marine monuments and sanctuaries by the Department of Commerce (which houses the nation’s lead ocean management agency), and orders a review of marine protected areas created since 2006 under the federal Antiquities Act, the 1996 law that allows a president to directly protect threatened areas on federal lands and in federal waters.

Monuments created during those years range from President Obama’s designation of the 5,000-square-mile Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the New England coast in 2016 to President George W. Bush’s early 2009 creation (and Obama’s 2014 expansion) of the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument south and west of Hawaii — the largest marine protected area in the world.

On Wednesday the president ordered a similar review of national monuments of at least 100,000 acres created on Federal lands since 1996. According to reports, Trump is eager to chip away at the size of the 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears national monument in Utah, created by President Obama in one of his last acts in office.

The administration has stated openly that all these reviews are aimed at easing expansion of federally leased oil and gas drilling. A coalition of environmental groups led by Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council have announced that they plan to file a lawsuit challenging the legality of removing the Obama-era marine protections.