The Trump administration is acknowledging at least a temporary defeat in its effort to open 128 million acres (51.8 million hectares) of Arctic and Atlantic Ocean waters to oil and gas drilling, announcing Thursday that it will delay release of the plan until after the 2020 U.S. election.
The U.S. Interior Department’s response to the decision by District Judge Sharon Gleason “appears to be an acknowledgment that the court decision is a significant setback for what [Donald Trump] has called his policy of ‘energy dominance’—an effort to rapidly expand oil and gas drilling across the country,” the New York Times states.
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In her ruling, Gleason “wrote that the law in which Congress gave the president authority over offshore drilling—the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act—expressly allows for leasing withdrawals but does not state that a subsequent president can revoke those withdrawals without congressional approval,” the Washington Post reported late last month.
“President Trump’s lawlessness is catching up with him,” Earthjustice lead attorney Erik Grafe at the time. “The judge’s ruling today shows that the president cannot just trample on the constitution to do the bidding of his cronies in the fossil fuel industry at the expense of our oceans, wildlife, and climate.”
The draft five-year drilling plan, released early last year, would hold only one of 26 planning areas in the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean off limits to oil and gas exploration. It immediately ran into opposition from at least three Republican governors, more than 100 members of Congress, the U.S. Defense Department, and dozens of environmental groups.
“Oil industry lobbyists and Republicans on Capitol Hill who have worked closely with the administration on crafting the plan said earlier this year that they expected the final plan to be released this spring,” the Times reports. But now, “given the recent court decision, the Department is simply evaluating all of its options to determine the best pathway to accomplish the mission entrusted to it by the President,” U.S. Interior Department spokesperson Molly Block said in an email.
Multiple news outlets last week cited a Wall Street Journal interview with incoming interior secretary and prolific agribusiness lobbyist David Bernhardt, his first media availability since taking office. “By the time the court rules, that may be discombobulating to our plan,” Bernhardt said. “What if you guess wrong?” he added. “I’m not sure that’s a very satisfactory and responsible use of resources.”
The American Petroleum Institute did its best to put up an optimistic front. “We are hopeful that an appeal of this case will move quickly and that we can proceed with the important work of exploring for America’s offshore resources without unnecessary delay,” said Erik Milito, vice president of upstream operations.
“The eastern Gulf is important to us,” API President Mike Sommers added earlier this month. “It’s a prolific basin, and it’s where we’ve had a lot of success.”
But U.S. environmental groups were buoyed by the announcement. “Every single governor from Maine to Florida and from Washington to California opposes offshore drilling off their coast,” said National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara. “Republican and Democrat alike.”
“Anything short of all new areas being protected would be a major problem for the communities and coastal economies who have the most to lose from dirty and dangerous offshore drilling,” added Oceana Campaign Director Diane Hoskins. “Considering every east and west coast governor opposes drilling off their coast,” she added, Trump and Bernhardt “should fulfill their duty to represent the people, not stand with special interests.”
Elected officials are stepping up, as well, with a spokesperson saying Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) “is cautiously optimistic about this news, but we will remain vigilant in continuing to oppose any effort to drill off of Virginia’s coasts.”
“This administration has treated public waters like a bottomless cash cow for Big Oil from day one, and if it takes a court order to get them to see reason, so be it,” added House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ). And in a committee hearing last month, Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-SC) set off an air horn to mildly approximate the effects of loud seismic testing on whales and other marine life.
“It’s fair to say seismic air gun blasting is extremely loud and disruptive,” he asked an Interior Department witness. “Is that correct?” In the course of the hearing, Cunningham revealed that seismic testing is 16,000 times louder than the air horn, and goes on for weeks or months at 10-second intervals.
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