By David Mickey
Many residents along coastal North Carolina applauded the Dec. 20 action by the Obama administration to permanently protect areas north of the Virginia border from oil and gas exploration.
Previously, in March 2016, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) removed the South Atlantic coast from the 2017 to 2022 five-year offshore leasing program. Under current law, leasing for oil and gas development off the coast of North Carolina will not occur before the next five-year plan beginning in 2022.
On Jan. 6, the BOEM denied all six of the pending permits for seismic testing in the Middle and South Atlantic Planning Areas.
“In the present circumstances and guided by an abundance of caution, we believe that the value of obtaining the geophysical and geological information from new air gun surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the potential risks of those surveys’ acoustic pulse impacts on marine life,” said BOEM Director Abigail Ross Harper.
Responding to this announcement, the International Association of Geophysical Contractors’ Nikki Martin issued a statement saying that BOEM was trying “to cater to extreme environmentalists in the last days of the administration,” and the National Ocean Industries Association’s Randall Luthi said BOEM’s “blanket denial of seismic survey permits is an unsurprising attempt to put another nail in the coffin of sensible energy exploration in the Atlantic.”
In the transition to the new administration, Harper resigned from BOEM and Deputy Director Walter Cruickshank, a 30-year veteran of the Department of the Interior, became acting director. The new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will appoint the next director.
The Trump administration’s America First Energy Plan promotes using revenues from fossil fuel production to pay for new infrastructure projects. The plan states, “We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure.”
According to this plan, “Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority.”
At the same time, “President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule,” according to the White House website.
On Feb. 28, Trump signed an executive order directing Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA, to revisit the definition of navigable waters in the “waters of the United States” rule calling it “one of the worst examples of federal regulation, and it has truly run amok.”
One month later on March 28, Trump issued another executive order “Promoting Energy Independence And Economic Growth” that seeks to reverse the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan but the order did not address offshore drilling. Trump’s order directs “departments and agencies (agencies) immediately review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law.”
It remains to be seen how those offshore areas now permanently protected and those not in the current leasing program can be reopened for oil and gas exploration. Seismic testing companies could renew their permit applications.
Congressional action to reverse the bans is also possible, and, according to a Dec. 22 story in The Hill, Alaska’s Senator Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young are working on legislation to do just that.
“The Congressman believes this decision (the drilling ban) can be overturned by the incoming administration and will be encouraging President Trump to do so,” said Young’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow in The Hill. “In addition, Young will also pursue legislation to overturn this decision.”
Allison Tucker, communications director for Congressional District 3 Rep. Walter Jones, which includes the Outer Banks, said Jones was not aware of this effort.
“Congressman Jones has always believed that the federal government should not make these drilling decisions and that it should be handled solely by the state,” Tucker said.
In 2011, Jones was one of only nine Republicans to vote against Young’s bill opening areas of the outer continental shelf to oil drilling.
According to a March 10 Bloomberg News article, an executive order reversing the Obama Administration protections in the offshore Arctic and Atlantic is under consideration but it would face serious legal challenges.
“What this requires is a good solid legal team that is walking you through the steps of the process, and right now the secretary is without a team,” said Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a strong supporter of oil and gas drilling. (Zinke) is itching to go and is very frustrated by the fact that he doesn’t have his folks in place.”