After the Obama administration gave up opening parts of the Atlantic Ocean to oil and gas drilling last year, the issue is back under President Donald Trump.
And this time, the president is much less likely to listen to the concerns of New Jersey residents, politicians and business people who have long opposed drilling in the Atlantic, said Cindy Zipf, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Ocean Action.
“There is not the sympathetic ear at all to concerns raised about the endangered right whale, and every other living creature in the ocean,” said Zipf, adding seismic testing to locate oil and gas is a big threat to marine creatures, as is an oil spill. “Nor is there a lot of sympathy to clean-ocean economies and other ocean users in this new administration.”
Trump has already used an executive order to start creating a new five-year leasing program for the Outer Continental Shelf, rejecting one developed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for 2017 to 2022 that excluded the Mid- and South Atlantic, as well as the Arctic.
And he is pushing legislation called the SECURE American Energy Act that was introduced in early November and would ease rules for how drilling is regulated in federal waters and on federal lands.
If passed, it would take away much of the current public process that must happen before new areas can be opened to drilling under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Zipf said.
Sponsored by Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican from the energy-producing state of Louisiana, the SECURE Act is supported by oil and gas industry groups as promoting economic development and job growth.
But it would transfer management for permitting of federal oil and gas resources to states, encourage offshore oil drilling while limiting safeguards, and weaken protections for marine mammals, according to a letter written by a coalition of 57 mostly national environmental groups that oppose it.
It would also eliminate presidential authority to withdraw areas of the shelf from drilling and to establish marine national monuments.
“The public in New Jersey has clearly said they want the ocean off our shores to be clean, full of wildlife, available for fishing and supportive of all economies we depend on, like tourism, fishing and even navigation into New York harbors,” said Tim Dillingham of the American Littoral Society.
Opposition to drilling has been a bipartisan issue in New Jersey, with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo taking a strong stand against it, along with Democrats like U.S. Sen. Cory Booker. All say the state’s tourism and fishing industries are too important to risk.
The tourism industry accounts for almost 10 percent of total employment and generated $38.2 billion of New Jersey’s gross domestic product in 2016, according to the state Division of Travel and Tourism. That’s 6.5 percent of the state economy.
Dillingham said hundreds of mayors have taken a position against Atlantic Ocean drilling, as have chambers of commerce “and others who realize we need a clean ocean for the sake of our communities. (Trump) is asking us to trade a clean ocean and way of life for what is really just more opportunities and profits for big oil companies.”
Last year’s BOEM plan for oil and gas drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf from 2017-22 set 10 potential lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and one in Cook Inlet, Alaska. But it excluded the Arctic and Mid- and South Atlantic.
Just a few miles off New Jersey’s coast is a series of underwater hills on the ocean floor, …
“In order to consider leasing in areas other than those in the approved program … a new (program) must be developed,” BOEM says on its website. Trump issued an executive order April 28 requiring BOEM to develop a new plan covering the years 2019 to 2024, according to the agency.
Zipf said she expects the Trump administration to announce before the end of the year what ocean areas will be added for oil and gas exploration under the new five-year plan.
She and Dillingham also expect a big push for the SECURE Act.
“I think it’s a priority for them mainly because it’s linked to industries that brought them into office and their agendas,” said Dillingham. “It has an economic development face that can be put on it. I worry they will steamroll over local communities.”