The curtain has come down on the latest episode of “to drill or not to drill in the Atlantic.” It ran two years, just a bit longer than the one before it in a series dating to the 1980s.
The ending, as expected, was the same, since deepwater drilling in the Atlantic wouldn’t be profitable and is broadly opposed. A renewed federal effort begun in May 2017 to offer leases to drill for oil and natural gas off the East Coast was suspended indefinitely by the Trump administration. A similar push by the Obama administration ended with reinstatement of a temporary moratorium on drilling.
Other than the presidents, most of the players remained the same. Opposition was led by state and local officials in both parties the length of the coast, along with environmental groups. Energy companies expressed little interest in the leases, unattractive compared to many other opportunities for adding to the current U.S. glut of oil and gas. There may not even be reserves in the Atlantic, since an effort in the early 1980s when the nation desperately needed more oil and gas failed to find enough to make wells worth drilling.
President Trump’s secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt, said ongoing litigation against expanding drilling in Alaska put a cloud over possible plans for Atlantic leases. That seems to confirm the suspicion, previously voiced here, that more access in Alaska and the eastern Gulf of Mexico was the actual intention of the offshore drilling effort.
This expected temporary victory by drilling opponents toward the end of April was soon followed by one that was something of a surprise. The Interior Department released new rules on oil and gas drilling that kept in place the bulk of Obama administration regulations in response to the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the gulf. Now new technologies will be allowed for the shear rams that can shut a well in an emergency (and two of those are still required, which would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon disaster). Rules regarding well pressure when drilling in mud were retained against industry lobbying, although the process for seeking exceptions will be streamlined. And although well inspectors will no longer have to be government-certified, they will be required to have the appropriate credentials for their work.
The administration’s moderate approach to adjusting drilling rules and its almost willful sidelining of its Atlantic drilling goals suggest this might be a good time for state and local officials on the East Coast to seek more permanent protection for their beaches and marine life.
They should be aiming to designate federal waters along the Atlantic Coast as a potential energy source of last resort, only to be explored when the supply-and-demand balance reaches a benchmark crisis level (which may never happen). The only reason for not doing so at this point is if the players in this overwrought and repeating squabble prefer to appeal to baseless fears for political purposes.