Trump Administration Paves Way for Offshore Oil

Opposition in many coastal communities
Oil drilling off the Long Island coastline dominated headlines in past decades. Following a decision by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke fossil fuel extraction in most federal waters could resume. Matthew Charron graphic

Environmentalists are decrying the Trump administration’s announcement last Thursday that it will allow new offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling in most coastal waters, including off the Eastern Seaboard. The plan represents a further effort to undo the environmental legacy of President Barack Obama, who acted late in his term to ban such drilling, and is consistent with a federal environmental policy that is dismissive of climate change. 

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said last Thursday that the plan for “responsibly developing the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program” for 2019-24 proposed to make more than 90 percent of the total outer continental shelf acreage and more than 98 percent of “undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas available” for possible exploration and development. 

At the same time, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement plans to reverse safety regulations enacted after the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, in which an explosion on the offshore rig caused an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil to be discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the largest marine oil spill in the nation’s history, fouling an estimated 1,100 miles of shoreline and causing far-reaching damage to the fishing and tourism industries, and to wildlife. 

“Nobody voted to put our oceans, marine life, coastal communities, and all they support at risk,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said yesterday. “This is a reckless gamble we can’t afford. We need to tell the president, tell the Congress, and tell our governors we won’t turn our oceans and coasts into industrial sacrifice zones at risk of the next BP-style disaster for the sake of oil and gas profits. We’ll insist on protecting these waters and we’ll hold our leaders to account.”

Bob Deans, an N.R.D.C. spokesman, added that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will accept public comment until March 9. Information is at boem.gov/national-program. 

In addition to environmentalists, pushback has come from lawmakers in East Coast and West Coast states, where the impact of an accidental spill on commercial fishing and tourism is feared. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a statement last Thursday in which he contrasted the president’s announcement with New York’s initiatives to transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. “President Trump’s move to allow new offshore oil and gas drilling on nearly all previously off-limit coastal waters represents yet another federal assault on our environment and our future,” he said. “Instead of taking action to confront climate change and safeguard our natural resources, the administration is abdicating its responsibility to protect our future.”

“While Washington paves the way for big oil and the gas industry to hurt our environment,” the statement continued, “New York is investing in the clean energy jobs of tomorrow and stepping up for our planet, our economy, and our children.”

Representative Lee Zeldin of New York’s First Congressional District, a Republican who broke with his party over the tax overhaul legislation approved last month, is likewise opposed to the plan. “I support an energy strategy that secures American energy independence and drives down costs,” he said in a statement on Friday. “On Long Island, however, our waterways are our way of life, and drilling off of Long Island is unacceptable and counterproductive to the well-being of our communities.”

On the Atlantic Coast, only the governor of Maine, a close political ally of the president, has come out in favor of offshore drilling. The governors of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, Washington, and Florida also oppose plans to open waters to offshore drilling. 

On Tuesday, however, Mr. Zinke removed Florida from consideration for new oil and gas development. On Twitter, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat who opposed the plan to drill off Florida’s coast and will stand for re-election in November, called the move a “political stunt” aimed at helping Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who may challenge him for his Senate seat. Florida’s exemption, he said via Twitter, was “orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott, who has wanted to drill off Florida’s coast his entire career.” 

Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, said that “the administration’s proposal to allow oil and gas drilling on the outer continental shelf on both coasts would not only be a huge boondoggle for big oil but threaten coastal communities with accidental oil spills while accelerating climate change.” If implemented, the proposal, which he called reckless, “would drag us back into the past at a time when we must leave carbon-based fossil fuels underground and switch to renewable energy sources.” 

Chad Nelson, chief executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protection of the oceans, waves, and beaches, called the Trump administration’s plan “far and away the biggest effort to open up drilling, ever.” Nonetheless, he said on Monday, “there’s a ton of opposition, seemingly at every level.” 

Along with vehement opposition from governors of coastal states, the Surfrider Foundation, Mr. Nelson said, is “trying to build local and state opposition to the plan.” When President Obama proposed allowing seismic blasting and drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, a plan that was ultimately abandoned, “every single coastal community in South Carolina passed a formal resolution opposed to drilling,” he said. “We’d love to see one of those in every coastal community on both coasts.” Coastal communities, he said, “have everything to lose and very little to gain.”

In East Hampton, then-Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc sponsored a resolution in August declaring the town board’s support for a continued ban on offshore oil and gas exploration and development along the Atlantic Seaboard. The Town of Southampton passed a similar resolution, also in August. 

Following his swearing in as the new town supervisor last week, Mr. Van Scoyoc spoke of the town board’s continued support for the goal of meeting all of its electricity needs from renewable sources, including the South Fork Wind Farm, a proposed installation to be constructed approximately 30 miles east of Montauk. 

Colleen Henn, of the Surfrider Foundation’s eastern Long Island chapter, urged people to attend a Feb. 15 public hearing to be held from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Hilton Albany. A rally will also be held near the hearing, Ms. Henn said. On Feb. 15 and 16, members of the Surfrider Foundation, coastal businesses, and others will convene in Washington to lobby legislators for a ban on offshore drilling, as well as advocate for funding for water quality testing, a reduction in plastic pollution, and promotion of coastal resilience.

The Trump administration’s plan “blatantly disregards coastal communities’ dependence on tourism, recreation, and fishing industries,” Ms. Henn wrote in an email on Monday. “These industries generate billions of dollars for our nation’s economy. Opening the coasts for drilling is a huge step backward for U.S. energy policy in a time when we should be switching to clean, sustainable energy sources. . . . We stand ready to fight the Trump administration’s attempt to remove permanent protections for the Arctic and Atlantic from oil drilling.” 

For lawmakers and activists opposed to offshore drilling, the fight is not a new one. An April 1982 report in The Star stated that the Town of East Hampton had applied to New York State for a grant to fund the development of an “oil spill contingency plan” in the event of an accident from offshore drilling in the Atlantic. That move came against the backdrop of aggressive moves by the Interior Department, under then-Secretary James Watt and his successors, to lease or sell areas in the North and Mid-Atlantic, including at the Georges Banks, “considered the world’s most productive fishing grounds,” The Star reported. 

Mr. Nelson of the Surfrider Foundation predicted a challenging campaign to stand up to the federal government, but said, “It really is a grassroots campaign. It’s going to be up to folks in communities and states to convince their representatives that this is what they want.”

“If you’re a local business in any coastal community like Montauk,” he said, “regardless of your politics, this plan has nothing but threats to your financial well-being and very little to offer.”