Trump order may seek to reverse offshore drilling ban

"You've been warned," a Florida democrat said in opposition from the Senate floor earlier this week.
By Daniel J. Graeber Follow @dan_graeber Contact the Author   |   April 27, 2017 at 1:00 PM
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April 27 (UPI) -- U.S. presidential remarks about Alaska and senate measures on offshore drilling may point to an executive action on oil and gas, authorities on the matter said.

"We're going to take care of Alaska too," President Donald Trump told Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, during remarks on the signing of an executive order on national lands. "Don't worry about it."

A pro-oil former businessman, the president has used the power of office to push for action meant to bolster the domestic economy, including a recent order to investigate trade practices that could be harming the U.S. steel industry.

In an executive order signed Wednesday, the Trump administration ordered the Interior Department to review national monument designations, calling such designations an example of federal over-reach. The review process could result in an advantage to industries ranging from logging and ranching, to oil and natural gas.

Advocacy and federal insiders have said an executive order that could be released as early as Friday would call for a review of actions enacted by previous administration that banned Arctic and Atlantic drilling, as well as moratoriums for parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

As part of a joint move with the Canadian government, former President Barack Obama used his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to ban oil and gas work in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off the coast of Alaska, as well as Atlantic coast areas.

A report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration finds the Arctic basins alone hold about 22 percent of the world's undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas resources. Uncorking those reserves supports some of the regional economies, with Alaska relying in part on the 13.6 billion barrels of recoverable oil in Prudhoe Bay. When the ban was enacted in Washington, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said the move was an unprecedented shot across his state's bow.

Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace, said that, by his read, the OCSLA gives the president the authority to withdraw some areas from oil and gas leasing consideration, but not the authority to put those lease considerations back on the table.

"I think one important story about Trump's flurry of executive actions is that almost all of his actions will be subject to lawsuits and judicial review," Donaghy told UPI. The courts haven't ruled on these particular aspects of the OCSLA, "but there are very strong arguments to be made that Trump simply doesn't have this authority."

Unlocking the oil and gas reserves in Arctic waters is not exclusive to the Trump administration. In October, Amy Pope, the vice chairperson of the White House Arctic Executive Steering Committee, said national energy security strategy recognized there may be sizeable oil and gas reserves in the region that could serve to meet domestic energy needs in the future. "Reasonably" developing those oil and gas reserves was in line with President Obama's "all-of-the-above" energy policy, she said.

Randall Luthi, the president of the National Ocean Industries Association, told UPI that about 90 percent of U.S. offshore areas are deemed off limits. By his guess, the White House could, through an order on Friday, kick start a new five-year lease plan that expands offshore acreage.

"We are confident that a thorough, fair review will prompt the Trump administration to begin work on a new five-year offshore leasing program that actually increases offshore access," he said.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held the final auction under an Obama-era lease plan for 48 million acres off the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi for oil and natural gas exploration and development earlier this year, securing nearly $275 million in high bids. Luthi at the time said that, with market conditions improving from last year, offshore areas may be primed for growth.

In the latest offshore auction, it was a foreign energy company -- Norway's Statoil -- that was among the big winners. With bids of more than $51 million, the company was the successful high bidder in all but two of the leases it targeted in the central waters of the Gulf of Mexico

Senate Republicans this week introduced measures aimed at reversing the moratorium put in place by the Obama administration. Oliver Williams, a spokesperson for the Arctic Energy Center, said this was the second such effort to expand offshore options in less than a month.

"With an executive order expected on Friday, the momentum to overrule the Obama administration's unwarranted and self-defeating ban, is steadily building," he said in a statement.

With the Trump administration already signing off on projects shelved by Obama, like the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he was "beating back" calls for more oil and gas drilling offshore. The Consumer Energy Alliance has been pressuring state leaders to evaluate the potential for oil and gas exploration in the waters off the western coast of Florida in an effort to pad state coffers.

Nelson helped push bipartisan legislation in 2006 that banned oil and drilling in the state waters of the Gulf of Mexico through 2022. A measure introduced in January called for an extension of that moratorium for another five years.

Speaking on the Senate floor this week, Nelson said more drilling in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic would interfere with everything from tourism dollars to the environment and military training in the region. This week, Trump softened his stance on opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, but Nelson warned of stiff opposition should he stay the course and open more offshore areas up for drilling.

"I hope the president thinks twice before putting Florida's economy at such a risk," he said.

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