President Trump on Friday will begin to reverse his predecessor’s limits on new offshore drilling, potentially opening up vast new areas in the Outer Continental Shelf for oil-and-gas exploration.
White House officials said Mr. Trump will sign an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review all aspects of the nation’s offshore drilling regulations.
As part of that review, Mr. Zinke will examine President Obama’s five-year ban on any new offshore leases, which would have lasted through 2022, and will make recommendations on whether to open up new areas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans to drilling, as well as new waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
The order also will temporarily prohibit the designation of any new marine monuments off U.S. shores, ending an Obama-era practice of using the century-old Antiquities Act to protect waters from drilling.
In justifying the new policy — which came under immediate, scathing attacks from environmentalists and Democrats on Capitol Hill — Mr. Zinke told reporters Thursday night that federal revenue from offshore drilling has dropped from $18 billion in 2008 to just $2.8 billion in 2016.
Some of that drop can be attributed to drops in the price of oil, but the Trump administration argues much of it is due to federal regulation.
Mr. Zinke said there are both economic and environmental benefits to expanding offshore drilling, and he rejected outright the notion that the U.S. should curb energy exploration solely out of concern for the environment.
“It is better to produce energy here under reasonable regulations than to have it be produced overseas with no regulations,” he said. “Environmentally, I can tell you we have the highest standards in the world, and if you doubt that, I invite you to visit some of the energy opportunities in the Middle East and Africa, which are catastrophes as far as the environment is concerned.”
The executive order does not immediately open up new areas for drilling, nor does it have any impact on existing oil-and-gas company leases off of U.S. shores.
Still, the very idea of expanding offshore drilling ignited a firestorm among Trump critics. Environmentalists pointed to past drilling disasters, such as the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to argue that allowing even more energy exploration is a foolish move.
“Seven years, almost to the day, after offshore drilling caused the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, President Trump is taking aim at expanding this dirty and dangerous industry into new areas like the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. Let me be clear: that would be a huge, bad, stupid mistake,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice president of Oceana, a leading conservation group. “I doubt President Trump would want to see Mar-a-Lago, or any of his other coastal resorts, covered in oil.”
Ahead of Friday’s official announcement, a coalition of 27 Senate Democrats on Thursday wrote a letter to Mr. Zinke urging him to scrap the plan. They said that current leasing plans will provide more than enough fuel, and they charged that oil companies are doing nothing with some of the leases they already hold.
Existing policy “already makes available more than 45 billion barrels of oil for drilling. It makes available more than half of all known oil and natural gas resources on federal lands offshore,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “Extracting and burning even these fossil resources would already be disastrous for our climate. But when oil companies are currently holding and warehousing leases … we should first ensure that they are taking full advantage of the areas that are already available before contemplating opening new areas to oil drilling and the threat of a spill.”
Energy companies reject that charge and say that not all of the areas they lease contain recoverable fuel.
As for environmentalists’ fears, Mr. Zinke said there are legitimate concerns with offshore drilling that must and will be addressed. He didn’t specifically mention the BP spill in 2010 or other environmental disasters, but he vowed that the administration will not expand offshore exploration without first ensuring it can be done safely.
“The truth is, we can expect during the review process we will find ways to look at our regulatory requirements that strengthen our safety and environmental policies,” the secretary said.
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