Expansion of Offshore Drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf
On January 4th, 2018, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a Trump appointee, announced a plan that would allow for offshore oil and gas drilling in almost all U.S. coastal waters. Entitled the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (National OCS program), Zinke’s proposal fulfills a requirement from an executive order signed by President Trump in April mandating review of President Obama’s prior five year off-shore drilling plan. If enacted in its current form, the National OCS program would sell leases over a five-year period from 2019 to 2024, covering 25 of 26 planning areas, which amounts to about 90% of the outer continental shelf. Currently, under Obama-era regulations, 94% of the outer continental shelf is off-limits for drilling. While still in the early stages, the plan has attracted the interests of a wide range of groups. This paper limits its focus to the Trump administration. A stakeholder analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats reveals that while the administration has considerable power to enact policy change, there are substantial hurdles, some of which the administration has created for itself.
An obvious strength of Trump’s Department of the Interior (DOI), is its ability, as the regulator, to write the rules. No other group, short of Congress, which has not gotten involved, has the capacity to regulate in the area of off-shore drilling expansion. Despite this clear advantage, the administration has shown what appears to be an inability to communicate between different levels of management, as evinced by the confusion over whether Florida is exempt from the plan. Five days after making the original announcement, Secretary Zinke revealed that he was “removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.” The announcement, having come after a meeting with Florida governor Rick Scott, sparked a series of requests for similar meetings and exemptions from other coastal state governors. Yet, ten days later, a senior DOI official appeared to contradict Secretary Zinke, saying that Florida’s coastal waters were still under full consideration for drilling.
This kind of miscommunication sends mixed signals and weakens the administration’s message as well as opens them up to their biggest external threat: potential litigation. In accordance with the National Environmental Protection Act, the agency must produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that outlines potential environmental harms the project could create, and any possible alternatives. If the DOI does not provide a reason related to environmental impact for excluding Florida, and the decision “appears to be driven by nothing but politics, the courts could set it aside,” according to John Leshy, Emeritus Professor of Law at UC Hastings. Already, Maryland’s governor has ordered the state’s attorney general “to take any legal action necessary against the federal government to prevent this possible exploration.” Similarly, California’s attorney general claimed that the plan and Florida’s exemption was “one of the most brazen attacks on the rule of law by the Trump administration.”
Another possible external threat facing the plan is the lingering memory of Deepwater Horizon and the risk of another oil spill. In 2010, a BP-owned oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. It impacted many of the same coastal cities that would be near new drilling sites. Already, the Center for Biological Diversity has predicted that upwards of 34 million gallons of oil could be spilled as a result of this new plan, and the threat of another Deepwater Horizon incident could be a powerful tool for opponents of the expansion.
While the threats to the administration’s plans are clear, their opportunities are harder to see. One possibility that the administration has already begun to try is using its unmatched media coverage to frame the problem in terms of energy independence. According to Secretary Zinke, “[t]his is a start on looking at American energy dominance.” Energy dominance has been one of President Trump’s primary goals since his campaign, with a special focus on coal, oil, and natural gas. By downplaying the environmental hazards and potential effects on coastal economies, and instead tying it in with Trump’s push to increase manufacturing and general “America First” ethos, the administration has the potential to attract many of the same people who voted for Trump in 2016, and many of those people live in coastal states affected by the ban. Growing support in these states might soften the opposition of coastal governors, especially Republicans.
While the Trump administration has the power to enact the National OCS program, its conflicting communications over exemptions and the potential threat of lawsuits pose significant obstacles. If the administration can shift the debate to center around America’s energy independence, and avoid the legal troubles surrounding politically motivate d state exemptions, it could overcome those obstacles. Whether it can manage to do this however, remains to be seen.
“On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.”
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