With comment period over, Interior mulls 5-year lease plan Published: Friday, August 18, 2017
Tensions are rising as the federal government considers revising the current five-year offshore drilling lease plan, with opponents vowing to put up a fight.
Yesterday marked the deadline for comments to be received by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) as part of its request for information issued earlier this year. President Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed BOEM to reconsider the current plan, with an eye toward opening up more acreage to offshore drilling rigs.
Zinke issued the directive to BOEM at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston earlier this year (Energywire, May 2).
Yesterday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) added his voice to the furor, coming out against permitting drilling rigs off his state's coast. McAuliffe said he was concerned that Trump's proposed budget cuts would put Virginia at risk of an oil spill, but his main opposition focused on the administration's stance on revenue sharing.
"A primary concern that must be satisfied in order for Virginia to be included in the leasing area is a revenue sharing agreement between participating Atlantic coast states and the federal government," McAuliffe said in a letter to BOEM National Program Manager Kelly Hammerle. "Today, we are no closer to resolving this issue."
McAuliffe also said he opposed the administration's proposal to repeal a law that provided for revenue sharing with Gulf of Mexico states. "As such I am requesting that the Commonwealth of Virginia not be included in the 2019-2024 National [Outer Continental Shelf] Program."
A broad coalition of industry interest groups issued their own formal comments demanding that Virginia waters be included, and more.
Nine organizations — including the America Petroleum Institute, International Association of Drilling Contractors and International Association of Geophysical Contractors — issued a 14-page set of comments and requests, including the demand that all federally controlled waters be incorporated into a new five-year offshore leasing plan. Their request also envisions allowing for oil and gas exploration off both coasts of Florida.
"Anything less undermines the comprehensive process set forth in the OCS Lands Act and could have significant impacts on U.S. energy policy options well into the future," the industry coalition stated in its own letter to Hammerle, also delivered yesterday. The industry groups said they "urge BOEM to make new areas in the Atlantic, Eastern Gulf of Mexico, Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Alaska, and the Pacific available for leasing."
The current five-year plan, implemented by the Obama administration, restricts new offshore oil and gas leasing to just the Gulf of Mexico minus waters off Florida and slivers off the coast of Alaska. The Obama administration also issued rules aimed at putting vast swaths of federally controlled waters off-limits to drilling permanently.
Trump vowed during the campaign to reverse those decisions once he assumed office. Existing law limits how quickly his administration can move to open up the Atlantic and Arctic to ocean drilling rigs, though environmental groups believe the Trump administration will seek to move as quickly as possible, prompting alarm from them.
Katharine MacGregor, acting assistant secretary for Interior, told reporters during a call Wednesday that BOEM is still a long way away from making any final decisions. Interior will next review the comments received yesterday and then issue a draft five-year plan for further public review. Drafting could be quick, as Interior has the option to simply resubmit an original plan drafted before the Obama administration removed Atlantic and Arctic waters from energy leasing consideration.
"We're still at the very initial stages of the five-year plan," MacGregor said.
McAuliffe's opposition to Atlantic drilling heartened environmental groups opposed to drilling for oil and gas along the Eastern Seaboard. Oil and gas activity already exists off Canada's Atlantic coastline, with substantial finds developed near the island of Newfoundland.
The Southern Environmental Law Center says coastal communities throughout the region and governors of both North and South Carolina oppose Atlantic drilling. SELC also firmly opposes the Trump administration's recent approval of oil and gas seismic surveys of the Atlantic Basin, a strong indication that the administration plans to make good on its promise to permit oil and gas exploration there (Greenwire, June 5).
"There is overwhelming opposition to drilling from coastal communities, elected officials across the political spectrum, local businesses, and commercial and recreational fishing groups," SELC senior attorney Sierra Weaver said in comments issued.
Some members of Congress weighed in on the industry's side. Zinke received a letter from the House Natural Resources Committee signed by more than 100 House members requesting a wider area for drilling consideration in a revised five-year plan.