A month before leaving the White House, President Obama invoked the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953 (OCSLA) to protect millions of acres of outer continental shelf (OCS) in the Arctic and the Atlantic from offshore oil and gas drilling. The drilling ban covered the OCS from Virginia to New England and along most of Alaska’s coast. However, a new proposal announced on January 4, 2018, by the Department of the Interior attempts to overturn the current ban on drilling in these areas. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is aiming to reopen over 90 percent of America’s OCS for oil and gas leases, including waters along California’s coast that have not seen any new drilling leases issued for decades.

Zinke explained the decision by stating, “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.” In August 2017, 119 House members and 36 Senators signed letters to the Secretary calling for a reexamination of the status of offshore drilling leases. The letters echoed Zinke’s claims that prioritizing offshore drilling could yield economic and national security benefits to the host states.

Yet, the latest proposal to expand offshore leases now faces strong opposition from Congress and state officials. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) were among the first GOP senators to speak out against the new plan. Rubio urged Zinke to remove the eastern Gulf of Mexico, which is adjacent to Florida, from the proposal. Collins claimed that opening Maine’s coasts to oil drilling would pose “a significant risk” to the state’s coastal ecology and economy. In a joint statement with Sen. Augus King (I-ME), Sen. Collins highlighted the annual $1.7 billion contribution Maine’s lobster industry makes to the regional economy. Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), along with seven cosponsors, introduced the New England Coastal Protection Act (S. 2298) to block Interior from issuing any new drilling leases along the coasts of five New England states.

Governors from most of the coastal states that would be affected by Interior’s proposal argued drilling would damage coastal economic activities, including fisheries and tourism, and bring substantial fiscal losses to their communities. Governors Kate Brown of Oregon, Jerry Brown of California, and Jay Inslee of Washington released a joint statement declaring, “For more than 30 years, our shared coastline has been protected from further federal drilling and we'll do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action.” California’s caution stems partly from environmental damage caused by the 1969 Santa Barbara offshore oil spill, the largest in the state’s history. California has not issued any new offshore drilling leases since.

A majority of East Coast governors also pushed back against additional leases. Rhode Island and its $5.2 billion tourism industry are particularly vulnerable to the potential impacts of offshore drilling. Rhode Island has sought to develop its coastline for wind energy instead, having completed the country’s first offshore wind farm in 2017. The governor of Delaware opposed the drilling proposal, which would harm 60,000 jobs that tourism and recreation create as well as $7 billion that coastal activities bring to the state. The only governors in favor of the lease expansion represent Maine, Alaska, Mississippi, and Alabama, with the latter two states already hosting offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sec. Zinke inadvertently sparked a wave of protests from coastal governors of both parties when he declared Florida would be exempted from offshore drilling after a meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), just one week after the broader announcement by the Trump administration. Seeking exemptions for their own states as well, legislators and executives from both parties said it was unfair to single out Florida, and warned of the economic and environmental impacts of drilling. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) said, “We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline in South Carolina.” Virginia Governor-elect Ralph Northam (D) asked for the same exemption for Virginia in a letter to Zinke, claiming that oil drilling would affect the state’s tourism industry and the naval operations of the Department of Defense (Norfolk, VA, hosts the U.S. Navy's largest naval base). On January 19, the acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Walter Cruickshank, told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources that the Interior Secretary had not made any final decisions on Florida after all and that Zinke’s prior statement was not a “formal action.”

In the event that Interior decides to move forward with a Florida exemption, regulators and lawyers could claim a violation of OCSLA and the U.S. Administrative Procedure Act. Under the Procedure Act, such an exemption could be categorized as “arbitrary and capricious,” since it failed to submit a reasonable rationale as to why the components of Florida’s coastal economy were unique versus those of other states that were not offered the same exemption.


Author: Jieyi Lu