President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday that would open the Atlantic and Arctic oceans for drilling.
Earlier in the week the move drew bipartisan fire from lawmakers in coastal states.
The order would allow Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to revisit a plan signed by former President Barack Obama that put those oceans off limits to drilling for another five years. The order also would lift a permanent ban on some drilling in those oceans, a rule Obama signed in December.
“People are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy,” Sen. Bob Menendez said at a press conference Thursday. “We don’t need a manmade disaster in the form of an oil spill.”
Eager for a victory, the White House is expressing confidence that a southern New Jersey con…
Menendez, a Democrat, said an accident like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 would wipe out New Jersey’s fishing industry and severely damage the summer tourism vital to shore towns. The BP spill took five months to stop and spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
“The Jersey Shore matters to millions of people. … It’s a national treasure,” Menendez said. “We’re not going to sell our shores to the highest bidder.”
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, introduced legislation Thursday that would halt permits for seismic airgun blasting on the Atlantic seaboard.
Seismic airgun pulses are loud, repetitive explosive sounds used to identify oil and gas reservoirs deep in the ocean floor.
Sound travels so efficiently under water that seismic blasts can cause hearing damage, stress and other harm to numerous aquatic species, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
“The ecological damage and negative economic impact caused by seismic testing is clear, which is why there is near-unanimous opposition from local concerned residents, commercial and recreational fishermen, and environmentalists along the Jersey Shore,” LoBiondo wrote in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation reaffirms my strong opposition to seismic airgun testing in waters off South Jersey.”
Environmental groups also oppose the executive order.
New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said an oil spill as far away as Virginia could cause the Jersey Shore major harm.
“This is a huge sellout to Big Oil and Gas at the expense of our coast and our tourism,” Tittel wrote in a statement. “What he is doing will threaten our safety, ecosystems and economy. If there is any type of spill, it would cause serious and lasting environmental harm and could ruin our tourism industry.”
Local political considerations and the global energy market may influence future exploration more than an executive order in Washington.
Several industry officials and experts predict oil and gas firms will bid on areas the administration plans to open to drilling, including those off the East Coast.
Targeted Arctic areas are much less attractive to investors now, and even potential drilling in the Atlantic could be complicated by long-standing resistance from coastal communities.
Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former Obama adviser, said while the Trump administration can rescind the former president’s efforts to end exploration in the two regions, that process is complex and would take at least two years to revamp the government’s long-term drilling plans.
“The question then is, does anybody show up, and does anybody want these (leases)?” Bordoff said. “It depends quite a bit on what the oil market looks like in two years.”
If it looks anything like it does today, with low oil prices and most industry growth taking place onshore, Trump’s new policy might have little practical effect.
National Ocean Industries Association President Randall Luthi, who headed the Minerals Management Service under President George W. Bush, said what matters most is there has been “just a complete change of attitude” toward offshore development since Trump took office.
The hope with the executive order is “that once the economics fall into place, the federal and regulatory regime will be right for increased leasing off the Outer Continental Shelf,” Luthi said.
Zinke has made clear he wants to boost drilling in federal waters to generate more royalties. While this money goes directly to the U.S. treasury, Zinke suggested Tuesday the royalties should be spent on a maintenance backlog within the national parks system.
“If you go back to 2008, the department made $15.5 billion more a year, just in offshore, than we do today,” Zinke said. “That’s enough to pay for infrastructure.”
But even with the new administration’s support for offshore drilling, opposition is intense among politicians of both parties in the Southeast.
The advocacy group Oceana said 90 percent of coastal municipalities from Cape May, New Jersey, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, have opposed drilling or seismic testing off their coasts.
South Carolina Republicans, including Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, have come out against drilling.
“It’s not the environmentalists and the dolphin huggers,” said Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana’s senior vice president for oceans. “It’s the business community. What you’ve got is a different fight now.”
Beaufort, South Carolina, Mayor Billy Keyserling said he is ready to again fight the prospect of offshore drilling — just as he did during the Obama administration — because of concerns over environmental threats, the potential impact on tourism and concern that more local jobs could be destroyed than created.
“We will fight it harder than we did in the past,” Keyserling said. “We all feel very, very strongly.”
These lease sales would be exempt from review under the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the bill, which would accelerate the process.
Despite the drilling restrictions Obama put in place for Alaska’s Arctic, activity continues there. Italian oil giant Eni wants to reach reserves in a federal area of the Beaufort Sea off Alaska by doing directional drilling from an artificial island it is using in state waters. Hilcorp has taken over a project formerly owned by BP. And Shell, after deciding to drop further exploration, gave its offshore acreage to the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska Native entity.
Christy Goldfuss, who headed the White House Council on Environmental Quality at the end of Obama’s second term, said the executive order he issued in December allowed exploration in 2.8 million acres in the near-shore Beaufort Sea where commercial interest is greatest.
“The idea that people are breaking down the administration’s door to get access to the Arctic is just false,” said Goldfuss, who now is vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Several industry officials said even with a change in leasing policy, regulatory changes would be needed to make drilling in the Arctic more economically viable. In July, the Interior finalized stricter rules for exploratory drilling there.
Luthi said the rules add “another two or three layers of difficulty to drilling” and he was “fairly optimistic” the new administration would look at revising them as part of its broader regulatory overhaul effort.
The bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling is urging Congress to preserve the Arctic drilling rule.
“We believe that these exploratory drilling regulations are necessary to prevent or reduce the severity or duration of a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic Ocean,” the commission wrote to lawmakers last month.
Still, broader energy trends are likely to shape the future more than any regulatory decision.
“If the last 10 to 15 years teaches us anything at all, it’s that we should be humble about our ability to forecast oil prices,” said Bob McNally, a former Bush administration energy official and president of the Rapidan Group consulting firm.
In the past decade, he noted, those prices have fluctuated between $26 and $140 a barrel. They now hover around $50, but should that start to creep up, interest in offshore exploration and drilling could rise, too.
McNally pointed to the recent five-year oil market forecast from the International Energy Agency, which found demand is expected to “grow strongly” through 2022 and “the need for more production capacity becomes apparent by the end of the decade, even if supply appears plentiful today.”
“At $100 a barrel, the economics and the politics change,” he said. “You’d see more industry interest and political calls for offshore development.”
No matter the future, the Trump administration is lifting restrictions the industry sees as unnecessary and unwise.
“Trump is concluding that what Obama put in place was unreasonable,” McNally said. Policy “should set reasonable standards and let market forces and technology — and geology in the case of oil and gas — dictate what activity takes place.”
The Washington Post contributed to this story.