WASHINGTON – The Trump administration unveiled a controversial plan Thursday to permit drilling in all U.S. waters, including protected areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic, where oil and gas exploration is opposed by governors from New Jersey to Florida, nearly a dozen attorneys general, more than 100 U.S. lawmakers, and the Defense Department.
More than 3 billion barrels of oil is recoverable on the outer continental shelf, along with more than 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Interior Department, which announced the plan. States stand to gain royalties from extraction of these natural resources, and drilling could create hundreds of jobs.
But the plan faces a wave of bipartisan state opposition, led in part by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who has said: "I'm not in favor of offshore drilling." A catastrophe on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak in 2010 would be disastrous for one of the state's most precious resources, the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, is opposed out of concern over drilling's impact on the state's natural resources. Gov. Christie sent a letter to the Interior agency that issues permits saying New Jersey "strongly opposes any waters off our coastline being considered for inclusion in this leasing program," citing its $44 billion beach tourism industry that creates more than 300,000 jobs.
The Democratic governors of North Carolina and Delaware are also opposed. Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, where beach tourism on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts generates nearly $50 billion and a half million jobs annually, according to a Florida Atlantic University report, said Thursday that he adamantly opposes drilling off the state's coast and requested a meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Reaction from New Jersey environmental groups was swift.
"It's an outrage," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, based in Monmouth County.
"Under this, 98 percent of U.S. waters are being considered for offshore drilling, a massive grab by big oil. The Jersey Shore is being considered for the first time in a long time. So from Maine to Florida, to the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, from sea to oily sea, the Trump administration is preparing to battle for oil and gas development. This is so reckless."
Zipf said the administration is also soon set to decide whether to allow seismic underwater blasting by drillers as part of the oil-seeking process. She expects a fight from the New Jersey congressional delegation as well as incoming Gov. Phil Murphy, set to be sworn in later this month.
"We've had every governor since Tom Kean oppose offshore drilling. We expect Mr. Murphy to be a leader and champion on this. … New Jersey does not stand for a threat to the ocean like this."
On Friday, Murphy will be joined by Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), Rep. Frank Pallone (D., N.J.), and environmental advocates at a news conference in Long Branch to denounce the offshore drilling plan.
The New Jersey Sierra Club was equally outraged.
"Trump has targeted our coast for offshore drilling, jeopardizing our tourism, ecosystems and fisheries while harming people who live along the coast," Jeff Tittel, the club's director, said in a statement. "He's siding with Big Oil and Gas and taking the first steps towards offshore drilling."
He said the Obama administration's five-year moratorium on offshore drilling and exploration in the Atlantic was a huge victory now set to be undone and a "serious threat."
"We have to explore new technologies for wind and wave power and remove obstacles that stand in the way of clean energy," Tittel said. "We should be focusing on promoting safe and renewable energy like wind power and not opening up the Atlantic to drilling."
Oil industry advocates argue companies need new options beyond the Gulf of Mexico, where drilling has been ongoing for decades.
"We should keep as many options on the table for our future oil and gas and energy needs," said Erik Milito, a director with the American Petroleum Institute. "The decisions that are being made now are really decisions about five, 10 and 15 years down the line. We don't want to prematurely take areas off the table that may be critically important for our energy and national security down the road."
The Obama administration considered a five-year plan to permit drilling in the southern Atlantic between Virginia and Georgia but abandoned it in March 2016 because of concerns raised by the Navy, which conducts military exercises in a vast area of the ocean near those states. A barrage of letters and comments from coastal communities opposed to the plan also played a role.
President Trump has extolled oil and gas exploration as part of an energy dominance agenda. The administration made history last month with its proposal to open nearly 77 million more acres in the Gulf of Mexico to companies wanting to purchase federal oil and gas leases, the largest offering in U.S. history.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore leasing, promised that the environment would be protected. "American energy production can be competitive while remaining safe and environmentally sound," Vincent DeVito, Interior's counselor for energy policy, said at the time. "People need jobs, the Gulf Coast states need revenue, and Americans do not want to be dependent on foreign oil."
On Thursday, the Interior Department suspended a study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on the safety of offshore oil and gas drilling platforms.
Offshore drilling caused one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent spill of 215 million gallons of crude into the Gulf that fouled beaches from Louisiana to Florida. The effects of the spill are still being felt more than seven years later.
Hydrocarbons linked to the spill were detected in 90 percent of pelican eggs more than 1,000 miles away in Minnesota, scientists say. Dolphins living in Barataria, Louisiana, have experienced mortality rates 8 percent higher than dolphin populations elsewhere, and their reproduction success dropped 63 percent. The well's owner, British Petroleum, has paid penalties in excess of $61 billion as of July 2016.
Oceana, a non-profit conservation group that monitors fisheries and pollution, called the proposal "a recipe for disaster." Citing the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, Diane Hoskins, the group's campaign director, said, "This radical offshore drilling free-for-all is a clear example of politics over people, ignoring widespread local and state opposition."