Interior Department plans massive expansion of offshore drilling

By Allen Cone  |  Updated Jan. 4, 2018 at 8:58 PM
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Jan. 4 (UPI) -- The Interior Department on Thursday proposed vastly expanding offshore oil and natural gas drilling, including in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and Alaska.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced most of the nation's outer continental shelf is being considered for drilling, including off the coasts of Maine, California, Florida and Alaska.

The proposal has been hailed by the oil and gas industry, but has drawn opposition from elected officials from both political parties in affected regions, as well as environmentalists, fisheries groups and the Department of Defense.

In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that directed Zinke to evaluate the five-year moratorium issued by former President Barack Obama that prohibits oil and gas drilling in some U.S. federal waters.

Zinke proposes making over 90 percent of the total Outer Continental Shelf acreage, which includes more than 98 percent of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas, available for exploration and development.

The current program, enacted by Obama, holds 94 percent of the OCS off limits.

Excluded from the plan are Alaska's Bristol Bay, which former President George W. Bush protected, and existing marine sanctuaries. The plan doesn't allow drilling around Hawaii or U.S. territories.

The proposal includes 47 auctions for drilling rights between 2019 and 2024.

The Bureau of Ocean Management is currently responsible for roughly 2,900 active OCS leases, which cover nearly 15.3 million acres, most of which are in the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is a start on looking at American energy dominance and looking at our offshore assets and beginning a dialogue of when, how, where and how fast those offshore assets should be, or could be, developed," Zinke told reporters Thursday.

Zinke said he wants to "strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance."

"Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks," Zinke said. "Today's announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period. Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks."

The agency must first take public comments on the proposal for 60 days, revise it, release the new proposal, and then finalize it. This process could take more than a year.

"This is a beginning, opening up and saying 'this is what's available,'" Zinke said.

The agency noted 155 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate sent letters to Zinke in support of a new five-year plan.

Florida's senators and governor are opposed to it.

Marco Rubio, a Republican, in a statement asked Zinke "to recognize the Florida Congressional delegation's bipartisan efforts to maintain and extend the moratorium in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and remove this area for future planning purposes."

"This plan is an assault on Florida's economy, our national security, the will of the public, and the environment," Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson posted on Twitter. "This proposal defies all common sense and I will do everything I can to defeat it."

Before the plan was announced, he posted Wednesday: "We should be strengthening rules that protect our environment and our economy from offshore oil drilling -- not weaken them. This administration seems to have forgotten the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster [in the Gulf in 2010] but I haven't and neither have the people of Florida."

On the Senate floor on Wednesday, Nelson said he will invoke a procedural rule known as the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress the power to overturn an agency's final rule.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and possible candidate against Nelson this year, said in a statement that he has "already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration. My top priority is to ensure that Florida's natural resources are protected, which is why I proposed $1.7 billion for the environment in this year's budget."

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, posted on Twitter: "Offshore drilling has caused some of the greatest man-made natural disasters of our time. The health of these waters is critical for the well-being and economies of our coastal communities. Let's protect our coasts, not open them up to potential destruction."

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