By Keith Schneider
The Trump administration, inviting a political backlash from coastal state leaders, on Thursday proposed to open for exploration the largest expanse of the nation's offshore oil and natural gas reserves ever offered to global energy companies, including waters off the coast of California.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the draft five-year leasing plan would commit 90 percent of the nation's offshore reserves to leasing, including areas off all three regions of the California coast that have been off limits to oil and gas exploration since the Reagan administration.
The draft plan, now subject to review and debate, would allow the first new federal lease sales off the California coast since 1984. It sparked immediate fury from Democratic leaders in the state.
"The American people deserve smart, strong action to keep our communities healthy, clean and safe. Yet the Trump administration is racing forward with its increasingly brazen attempts to loot our environment and our planet," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "Americans from coast to coast will make their voices heard to oppose this blatant corporate giveaway."
The proposed plan for the outer-continental shelf calls for 47 lease sales to be scheduled in 25 of 26 areas off the nation's coastlines between 2019 and 2024.
Seven new leases are targeted in the Pacific region, including two each for Northern California, Central California and Southern California, as well as one for the area off the Washington and Oregon coast. Twelve leases are nominated for the Gulf of Mexico, and 19 are proposed for coastal Alaska.
"This is a start on looking at American energy dominance and looking at our offshore assets and beginning a dialog of when, how, where and how fast those offshore assets could be or should be developed," Zinke said in a conference call with reporters.
"Nobody is better at producing clean, quality, responsible energy than the U.S.," said Zinke. "Clean, reliable, abundant and affordable energy is what's driving our economy."
Nick Lund, the senior manager for landscape conservation at the National Parks Conservation Association, said the administration faces significant political opposition in the coastal communities of California and in other states to implement the plan.
"Communities surrounding our 88 coastal national parks, including Santa Barbara, Charleston and Baltimore, have formally opposed offshore drilling and exploration," Lund said. "For the first time in decades, the waters, wildlife and local economies of coastal parks like Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and Channel Islands National Park in California will be at risk to the dangers of drilling."
California Gov. Jerry Brown has pushed for a permanent ban on new offshore drilling off the state's coast, both because of concerns over potential oil spills and reluctance to expand the world's reliance on fossil fuels in the face of climate change.
Instead, the administration has proposed to open almost all of the nation's potential offshore oil and gas reserves to exploration. The move marks yet another effort to dismantle the Obama administration's restrictions on energy development, including special protections adopted for offshore areas.
Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, the Obama administration set in place a series of offshore leasing moratoriums in the Gulf and bans along other coastlines. In March 2016, the Obama administration rescinded drilling leases along the Atlantic coast. In December 2016, as he was preparing to leave the White House, Obama withdrew leasing plans for the Arctic Ocean in Alaska.
Nearly all those areas are now back in play, with the exception of the northern Aleutian Islands in Alaska, which are protected under orders from former President George W. Bush. New drilling would be delayed in the eastern Gulf of Mexico until 2023 to comply with existing federal law. Marine sanctuaries also would remain off limits.
Federal lease sales apply to waters from three nautical miles offshore, with some exceptions in Texas and Florida, up to 200 nautical miles offshore.
"This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed for a national outer-continental shelf program in the five-year lease schedule," Zinke said.
The 47 lease sales being proposed, he said, compare to 11 under the Obama administration, and 36 under former President Jimmy Carter.
Zinke said the revenue raised by the lease auctions would be invested in renovating national parks. He said the Interior Department would not shortcut federal requirements for assessing the environmental consequences of the exploration and drilling plan.
Coastal states, especially California, Alaska and Florida, are especially sensitive to proposals to open the offshore seabed to oil and gas exploration because of oil spill risks that are escalating.
A devastating, 100,000-barrel spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1969 led to the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the foundation of U.S. environmental law, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The 260,000-barrel Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989 exposed thousands of state residents to the beach-fouling consequences of spilled oil. The 4.9 million-barrel Deepwater Horizon disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, stirred new and broad opposition to offshore development.
"The oil spills are so catastrophic if they happen," said Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond Law School in Virginia. "People in Chesapeake Bay region can't afford that possibility and neither can cities along the California coasts."
The administration's drilling plan already has drawn sharp criticism from coastal-state leaders.
U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., who also backs a permanent ban on new drilling off the state's coastline, said new offshore exploration poses a serious threat, both in potential environmental damage and impacts on tourism.
"The central coast knows too well the damage caused by oil spills, our local economies and fragile ocean ecosystems cannot afford another disastrous spill," Carbajal said in a statement.
"Californians will never let this happen," said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif. This reckless proposal for a new offshore drilling spree should face widespread, bipartisan opposition. We'll fight them in Congress, on the beaches, in the courts, and at the ballot box. I'm confident we'll defeat this dangerous plan."
Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott said the plan to open deep ocean reserves off his state's coastline "is something I oppose." Scott said he requested a meeting with Zinke to "discuss the concerns I have with this plan."
Though the president and his aides have spent much of the last year clearing regulatory obstacles and promoting fossil energy production on federal holdings, the results are decidedly mixed. Coal production has ticked up sightly, largely due to a rise in exports. Onshore leasing oil and gas auctions on the West's public domain have stirred some interest in select areas of the interior West, particularly in Wyoming and New Mexico, but are drawing big yawns from the energy industry in Alaska, Nevada and other states.
The scope of the administration's offshore drilling proposal is vast. But its potential to actually result in oil exploration and development is not nearly as certain. Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of its Arctic drilling campaign in 2015 after spending $7 billion because of the rising cost, significant public opposition and extreme difficulty of exploring in rough water. U.S. oil production reached nearly 10 million barrels a day in October, the highest level since the start of the 1970s. All but 15 percent was produced onshore.
The interior secretary said there would be wide consultation and debate with state and congressional leaders before any plan is finalized. But he emphasized the administration's conviction that expanding domestic fossil fuel production relieves the risk of relying on imported oil, and will generate new wealth and new jobs. "It's about our workforce and the chance to be part of the American experience. Our advantage is energy," he said.
Zinke late last year put into place a number of steps to make it easier to lease and explore the onshore and offshore oil and gas reserves that are owned and managed by the federal government. One of those measures was reversing safety measures and requirements for installing safety equipment that were put in place by the Obama administration after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.
Offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico produce about 1.5 million barrels of oil daily, or 15 percent of total U.S. production.
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