How the newly proposed offshore drilling program could affect your coast

At the end of June, the Department of the Interior announced plans to develop a new five-year National Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS).

The current five-year plan was finalized just last year by the Obama administration and was the result of years of negotiations, environmental impact research and public comments. But the Trump administration has other plans for America’s energy initiatives and announced their intentions when President Trump signed an executive order on April 28 requesting an offshore American energy strategy.

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke hinted at the administration’s intentions:

“Developing a new National Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program that respects environmental and economic sensitivities but still allows us to responsibly develop our resources is critical to reaching President Trump’s goal of American energy dominance. Offering more areas for energy exploration and responsible development was a cornerstone of the President’s campaign and this action is the first step in making good on that promise for offshore oil and gas.”

While the announcement merely begins the 45-day open comment period, that is the first step to the Trump administration being able to rework a new five-year offshore drilling program. Details are scarce on the specifics of an intended plan, but Acting Assistant Secretary Kate MacGregor noted that “94 percent of the OCS” is off-limits to drilling, and it seems that the Trump administration would like to change that.

We spoke with the Surfrider Foundation’s environmental director, Pete Stauffer, to get a sense of how this future offshore drilling program could affect our coasts, beaches and oceans.

The 2011 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Green Fire Productions/Flickr

What currently is America’s offshore drilling policy?
Currently the Atlantic coast and Pacific coast are protected from offshore drilling within the federal government’s five-year plan.

The current plan was finalized last year after years of environmental review and millions of comments submitted by citizens. So the Trump administration this year has said they want to revise that plan and they are interested in expanding offshore oil and gas drilling into new areas.

What are some of those new potential areas for offshore drilling?
They’re looking at the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Arctic. This will be a multi-year process, and in the coming months we will see a more specific proposal of exactly where they’re looking.

At this stage, they’ve cast a very wide net and are essentially saying that they’re open to everywhere, particularly the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic. All three of those are battleground regions.

What are some of the risks of offshore drilling?
There are major environmental impacts throughout every phase of the offshore drilling process. That starts with seismic testing, which is looking for oil and gas reserves.

Oil and gas companies use these loud sound blast explosions that are really damaging to marine life to identify oil and gas deposits. That is likely to move forward off the Atlantic in the coming months.

A second type of impact is the industrialization of the shoreline. The infrastructure, the refineries and the pipeline can really change the character of a coastal community. Major impacts to water quality and air quality, and then, of course, oil spills.

For every major oil spill that gets headlines, you have hundreds of smaller spills that are under-reported and cause serious impact.

For people that visit the coast, those that surf, those that swim, all of this will affect you.

An oil spill off San Francisco. Photo: Courtesy of Ingrid Taylor/Flickr

With our dependence on oil, doesn’t oil drilling have to happen somewhere?
There’s two things I would say to that. What is not even clear is if there is a strong demand for or need for offshore drilling, because it’s safer and cheaper to do so on land. The second point is Surfrider and many other groups and people believe we need to shift to renewable sources of energy.

If you look at the Atlantic coast, the amount of oil that is there is actually relatively small, something like an eight-month supply of oil. It’s not a sustainable or renewable source of energy.

What about the economics of it? Don’t drilling advocates say it creates jobs?
Drilling advocates often bring up that it’s economic development with jobs, but for coastal communities, their economy is much more dependent on tourism, recreation and fisheries many times over.

That’s why we’ve seen an incredible response on the Atlantic, with over 125 local governments passing resolutions against drilling, tens of thousands of businesses saying, “We don’t want this; it threatens our economy.” This is not just an environmental issue; it’s an economic one as well.

Obviously Surfrider works on a lot of issues, [but] there haven’t been many issues that have galvanized our chapters and also communities, businesses, elected officials of both parties just saying that it doesn’t make sense.

It will be a multi-year process; it’s going to be a battle for sure. And ultimately we need to reduce our oil consumption and switch to clean energy.

You can find out more about offshore drilling from Surfrider. And if you want to leave a public comment for the Department of the Interior, head to regulations.gov and search “BOEM-2017-0050.”

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