On January 4, the Department of the Interior announced a proposal to permit offshore oil and gas drilling in most United States continental-shelf waters, in effect reversing a provision of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. The proposal comes months after an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in April directing the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a five-year offshore drilling plan that President Barack Obama had considered but later abandoned due to widespread opposition.
The plan would allow energy companies to lease areas off the coast of California, in the Arctic, and along the Eastern Seaboard that were previously protected and therefore closed to drilling. Zinke said that the plan aligns with the Trump administration’s aim to stimulate job and revenue growth and push for the end of energy dependence on foreign powers, stating that there is a “clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance.” The proposal comes in anticipation of nearly fifty lease sales between 2019 and 2024, including in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Alaska and California.
The announcement was met with bipartisan opposition on the part of governors of various states, including New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, and Washington. There are concerns in relation to the possible environmental consequences of this proposal and how the local economies of these states could be affected. Gov. Rick Scott (R) of Florida stated, “I have 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.”
Beach tourism composes a large part of Florida’s economy, generating nearly $50 billion and half a million jobs annually. The industry was especially affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, often cited as the worst environmental disaster in US history, the effects of which are still being felt today. The governors of other coastal states expressed similar concerns with the plan’s potential ramifications on the local economies, particularly the tourism, fishing, and recreation industries. Several governors, in addition to various environmental groups, have threatened legal action.
It is possible that the new proposal does not directly lead to any changes in offshore drilling in the near future. Still suffering from the plunge in oil prices in 2014 and wary to invest resources while the amount of oil and gas is unknown, it is unlikely that oil companies will dive headfirst into developing these areas. The proposal does, however, emphasize the Trump administration’s stance on the long power struggle between corporate interests and the environment. Jody Freeman, the director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School and a former Obama climate advisor, explains, “The decision is a signal . . . that Republicans want to open the nation’s public lands and waters for business.”
Neither the new proposal nor the reactions to it are surprising given the administration’s one-year history of environmental policy. The decision that stands in the starkest contrast to Obama’s legacy was the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord. Although the decision did send a strong signal that climate change would no longer be considered a priority, or even a threat, under the new administration, some argue that the decision has actually bolstered international efforts to remain committed to the pact. German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni released a joint statement after the announcement, stating, “We deem the momentum generated in Paris in December 2015 irreversible, and we firmly believe that the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated, since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies, and economies.”
British prime minister Theresa May’s condemnation of Trump’s decision was slightly more scathing; addressing the United Nations, she said, “As the global system struggles to adapt, we are confronted by states deliberately flouting—for their own gain—the rules and standards that have secured our collective prosperity and security.” In spite of the unity of foreign nations in continuing to support the agreement, Trump seems unlikely to reverse the decision; just last October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a repeal of the Clean Power Plan, making it even more difficult for the United States. to cut down on its emissions.
In particular, there seems to be a pattern in the current administration of prioritizing economic growth and corporate interests over environmental concerns. In March of last year, Trump’s State Department granted a permit for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that Obama had rejected in late 2015 due to concerns about the pipeline’s possible contributions to future carbon emissions and its location in land promised to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in a treaty with the federal government signed in the 1800s.
Similar concerns permeated the debate around the revised decision, with environmentalists arguing that the construction of the pipeline would make it even more difficult for the United States to decrease carbon emissions and with the Native Americans of Standing Rock feeling cheated but not surprised. Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II stated, referring to the decision, “We are a sovereign nation and we will fight to protect our water and sacred places from the brazen private interests trying to push this pipeline through to benefit a few wealthy Americans with financial ties to the Trump administration.”
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the policies that constitute Trump’s environmental legacy. Changes made within the government, including funding cuts to the EPA under the new 2018 budget and the censoring of climate change on US government websites, have also impacted how environmental concerns are being addressed.The general impetus for these decisions seems to be a sense that Obama-era environmental regulations have cost the nation economic growth, particularly in industries like coal mining that have suffered from job and revenue losses. However, it remains a fact that climate change is a serious threat to the United States, having cost its economy at least $240 billion a year over the past ten years. By switching the focus to a transition into clean and renewable energy, the national economy could benefit substantially, not to mention the global position of the United States among its fellow nations. It would do well for the administration to reconsider their stance, if not for the environment, then for the people it represents.