Opponents of the Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposals pressed their case as a first 60-day public comment period drew to a close this week.
Meanwhile Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, speaking at a Houston energy industry conference Tuesday, talked up the offshore plan and other administration moves to streamline drilling and infrastructure permits.
The Department of Interior, Zinke said, “should be in the business of being a partner” with industry. In its regulatory reform effort, the administration should aim to shorten the time for permitting energy infrastructure to two years, he told attendees of the 2018 CERAWeek conference.
Zinke officially announced the start of a new draft five-year plan for leasing on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) in January, starting the clock on an initial 60-day public comment period that ends Friday.
The plan would dramatically widen potential leasing areas, restoring Atlantic areas taken off the table by the Obama administration and opening most of the OCS to future exploration.
But apart from Alaska, the administration is getting mixed or little political support from states outside the Gulf of Mexico. States with maritime industries like Virginia and South Carolina, where there was support for early Obama administration moves to allow exploration off their shores, have been the focus of intense coordinated opposition campaigns.
Led by environmental groups, regional coalitions of local activists, tourism industries, commercial fishing and recreational businesses argued their East Coast states have too much at risk in their existing coastal economies to allow offshore oil and gas development.
A winter series of 23 public information sessions held by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management became focal points for opposition rallies in the mid-Atlantic and New England. As the March 9 comment deadline approached, opponents continued to hammer on their economic arguments.
“We are asking you to join us in opposition by sharing your personal stories,” the coastal environmental group American Littoral Society wrote in an appeal to its New Jersey and New York supporters, urging them to send BOEM testimony and data about their seaside businesses, fishing activity and seafood sales, and beach use.
The national group Oceana, one of the drivers behind the anti-drilling campaign, put out a report contending that coastal tourism, recreation and fishing industries contribute 2.6 million jobs and $180 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product.
The industry countered with its own coalition, the Coastal Energy Alliance, to enlist pro-offshore supporters. State affiliates of the American Petroleum Council made their pitches to BOEM, urging the agency not to preclude mid-Atlantic leasing.
“Interior’s offshore leasing proposal is a crucial development for North Carolina’s economic and energy future,” said David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council. “Being able to access more energy resources off the coast of our state could create more reliable and affordable energy for North Carolina’s consumers and families.”
But the Trump administration’s swift backpedaling to take Florida out of the offshore plan, at the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, had other state officials lining up their own audiences with Zinke.
After meeting with Zinke Feb. 27, four New Jersey congressmen said they were told waters off their state would soon be “off the table,” and that Zinke had recognized the state does not have infrastructure to support offshore oil and gas.
At the CERA conference, Zinke said the governors have tremendous leverage in the leasing program, because state land use regulators must approve new terminals and pipelines.
While New Jersey and New York have ambitious hopes for developing offshore wind energy, the states have deep historical opposition to offshore oil and gas development, dating back to early proposals in the wake of 1970s energy crises. New Jersey’s coastal zone management program – more concerned today with protecting beaches and water quality – began 40 years ago as a scramble by state officials to head off onshore terminal and pipeline proposals.