New federal proposal calls for massive expansion of leases
BY NEEL KELLER | SENTINEL STAFF | Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2018 11:30 am
State and local opponents of offshore drilling say they are struck, if not surprised, by the sheer magnitude of the Trump administration's sweeping new offshore drilling plan announced last week. And they are promising a fight.
Outer Banks Surfrider Foundation Vice Chair Matt Walker told the Sentinel, "We were all pretty much prepared to see some far-reaching impacts, but this is on such a huge scale that it represents about as big a threat as we can imagine."
Dare Board of Commissioners Chairman Bob Woodard told the Sentinel that the board's longstanding opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing "has not changed and we remain strongly opposed to this." Speaking at the Jan. 8 board meeting, Woodard encouraged the other board members to "look at this new plan. We as a board may need to take a look at passing another resolution against it. I still take the position that 'we take all the risk, but get none of the reward.'"
And Oceana Senior Campaign Organizer Randy Sturgill called the plan "insane" and a "radical offshore free-for-all. One thing is for sure. They will not get the Atlantic without one hell of a fight!"
The new plan for developing the National Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024 was announced on Jan. 4 by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. It proposes to make more than 90 percent of the total OCS acreage available for exploration and development. By comparison, the current program approved by the Obama administration puts 94 percent of the OCS off limits.
The plan calls for 47 potential lease sales. Nine are in the Atlantic region, with three of them in the Mid- and South Atlantic, which includes North Carolina. The proposal also includes all federal waters, which begin three nautical miles off the coastline and extend out for 200 miles.
Zinke announced proudly that the program "proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history."
Surprising to many observers was the inclusion of seven potential lease sales off the Pacific coastline from California to Washington. There had been no federal lease sales on the Pacific or Atlantic coast since the 1980s.
The new policy was set in motion last April, when President Trump signed an executive order overturning a 2016 Obama Administration ban on offshore drilling in portions of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and the decision that there would be no offshore drilling leases in the Atlantic Ocean for the 2017-2022 period.
This was followed in November by the introduction of a legislative package endorsed by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources designed to "streamline" and speed up granting seismic testing permits and expediting both onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling.
While the legislation has not yet advanced to the House floor, its committee endorsement sent another signal that the Trump Administration was serious about pushing new offshore drilling leases.
During a telephone press conference on Jan. 4, Zinke touted the benefits of his plan, stating that it is "better for the environment to produce energy here with responsible regulation." He added that "as far as the economy goes, clean, reliable, abundant and affordable energy is what's driving the economy."
And, in what seemed to be an effort to contrast this administration's offshore drilling policy with that of its predecessor, Zinke declared, "There is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance."
Support for the new plan followed quickly from the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), which represents seismic testing companies. IAGC President Nikki Martin called the announcement "a win for the American people," adding that, "Today's announcement demonstrates that this Administration is thinking beyond today and taking into account the energy needs of a growing economy forfuture generations."
The American Petroleum Institute, another supporter of the new plan, cited a Harris Poll survey that reported that 77% of voters support more oil and gas development, with 68% specifically supporting more offshore drilling.
Dare County Commissioners Chairman Woodard, however, pushed back against claims of widespread voter support for more offshore drilling, calling them "absurd."
"There is no truth to that at all," he asserted, "particularly not here on the Outer Banks."
N.C. Governor Roy Cooper joined a number of other East Coast governors in opposing the plan unveiled by Zinke. "Offshore drilling represents a critical threat to our coastal economy," Cooper said. "Protecting North Carolina families and businesses is my top priority, and we will pursue every option to prevent oil drilling near North Carolina's beaches, coastal communities, and fishing waters."
Kill Devil Hills Mayor Sheila Davies, who has taken an active role in opposing offshore drilling, told the Sentinel that, "Given the direction the administration has been going, I'm not surprised by this, but I am extremely disappointed."
"As a town, and hopefully partnering with the Surfriders and other groups," Davies continued, "we will make our voices heard loud and clear once again. We won't give up fighting."
New Nags Head Mayor Ben Cahoon said he is personally "opposed to both offshore drilling and seismic testing," stating that, "New drilling off the Atlantic shore, where existing tourism economies already employ millions of people and contribute massively to state coffers, seems especially foolhardy."
Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President Karen Brown said she and the chamber are "disappointed with the new proposal" and will continue to work with the "business community, elected officials and the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast (BAPAC) to have our voices heard, the facts presented and work toward a positive outcome."
Next up in the leasing process is a 60-day public comment period that started Monday, Jan. 8. People may post their comments online at regulations.gov. There will also be a public forum hosted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in Raleigh on Feb. 26.
Walker, of the Surfrider Foundation, said he objects to the scheduling of North Carolina's only public forum in February in Raleigh: "They're holding meetings only in state capitals. So they're going to be extremely difficult for people to get to. It's obviously not designed to get input from the people who will be most affected."
Acknowledging the need for strong and united action from both Democrats and Republicans, Walker emphasized, "This is going to require a lot of heavy lifting on the part of all concerned citizens from both sides of the aisle - real concerted political pressure - to push this back."