Coastal states mount bipartisan resistance as Trump forges ahead with offshore drilling plans
The Trump administration is pushing forward with its plans to dramatically expand offshore drilling and testing, even as coastal Republicans and Democrats alike work swiftly to block such efforts.
Southern states like Florida and South Carolina are among those rejecting President Donald Trump’s plans to open virtually all U.S. waters to oil and gas drilling. Coastal communities say those projects would imperil tourism and hurt their economies, to say nothing of the environment. Both Trump and Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt have largely ignored the outrage, even from states with conservative leadership.
Last week, 27 Florida lawmakers — the state’s entire House delegation — sent a letter to Bernhardt, imploring him to make good on former secretary Ryan Zinke’s pledge to exempt Florida from offshore drilling plans. The lawmakers span the political spectrum, and include Reps. Kathy Castor (D), who is heading the House’s select committee on climate change, Francis Rooney, a Republican who has pushed for climate action, and Matt Gaetz (R), who once introduced legislation to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“As you know, last year, former Interior Secretary Zinke announced that Florida would be exempt from any offshore drilling plans. However, we remain concerned that no formal action has been taken to prohibit drilling off Florida’s coasts,” wrote the lawmakers.
Offshore drilling has been unpopular with coastal lawmakers from both parties in light of the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, which devastated the Gulf Coast and wrought havoc on the region’s economy and environment. But in January 2018, Zinke unveiled the draft Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Oil and Gas Leasing Program, which spans from 2019 to 2024 and opens 90 percent of federal waters to fossil fuel projects.
Coastal governors largely united against the plan — then-Gov. Paul LePage (R) of Maine was alone in his support for the proposal — but only Florida was given a verbal exemption from Zinke. That exemption was never codified, however, leaving Floridians nervous — states only control their own waters up to three miles out from land, at which point control is in the hands of the federal government.
In November, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment banning offshore drilling, in a nod to the coastal state’s vulnerable tourism industry, as well as the hurricanes and heat waves associated with climate change. In last week’s letter, Florida lawmakers emphasized the impact drilling could have on the state, jeopardizing its “fragile and treasured coasts,” in addition to “military preparedness.” The U.S. military trains in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Florida isn’t the only state putting pressure on the federal government as offshore drilling plans move forward. On Friday, South Carolina asked a federal court to intervene and halt the Trump administration’s plans to drill in the Atlantic. The main focus of the legal request is seismic testing, the invasive process companies use to assess oil and gas reserves, which can be harmful to marine mammals.
During the partial government shutdown in January, South Carolina sought to join a lawsuit opposing seismic testing, but the Interior Department declined to act, citing the shutdown. The department’s interest in drilling persisted during that time, however: Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) brought back staff specifically to work on issuing seismic permits and the broader OCS program several weeks into the impasse. A federal judge subsequently ordered BOEM to stop its offshore drilling work until the shutdown ended, at which point they resumed.
Now, South Carolina is arguing that seismic testing “would be contrary to applicable law and would have a disastrous impact on marine life,” in addition to hurting the state’s economy.
In a statement to ThinkProgress and other outlets, Billy Keyserling, mayor of the coastal city of Beaufort, South Carolina, argued that local businesses would take a severe hit from offshore drilling.
“Our economy is built on the value of our natural assets, specifically the abundant opportunities for recreation and observation of marine life, alone with recreational, commercial and sustenance fisheries,” he said, noting that “our businesses depend on our healthy and vibrant population of marine life.”
This localized opposition is echoed in the broader mounting resistance to offshore drilling nationwide. In January, lawmakers from nine coastal states rolled out a series of state-level legislative efforts to combat offshore drilling along their coasts. Seven House Democrats simultaneously announced a number of bills targeting offshore drilling on a national level, with aims to protect various Pacific and Atlantic areas.
Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), told ThinkProgress in January that local opposition to drilling shouldn’t be underestimated.
“We have every coastal community opposed to this,” said Wannamaker, with the caveat that Trump nonetheless “doesn’t seem to be listening” to the bipartisan outcry over drilling.
That is likely to hold true as the administration pushes forward this year despite appeals from coastal states. BOEM is expected to release the OCS plan soon, according to experts familiar with the agency’s schedule, making drilling efforts imminent.