On Thursday, January 4, 2018, the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a proposal to open 25 of its 26 offshore planning areas for leasing for oil and gas drilling, reversing an Obama Administration drilling plan that had put the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans off-limits, along with new regions in the Arctic Ocean. The Administration emphasized that the plan was potentially subject to revision, beginning with a 60 day comment period after publication in the Federal Register.
Even before official publication, the plan drew immediate adverse comment from both red and blue coastal states. Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott, who otherwise supports the Administration, vigorously criticized the plan the same day it was announced. On Monday, January 9, 2018, DOI announced that it would remove Florida’s coast from the plans for future drilling, with Secretary Zinke stating that “Florida is unique and its coast is heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” Of course, the economies of other coastal states are also dependent on their beaches, oyster beds and fisheries, and it seems certain they will push for what Florida got.
The reversal of the offshore leasing policy is a big deal, but was not unexpected. President Trump had signed an Executive Order in April directing a review of the restrictions. DOI also recently reduced the regulatory requirements placed on offshore drilling by the Obama Administration after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf. All of that is consistent with the Administration’s clear intent to reverse almost every action taken by the Obama Administration in the area of environmental protection. But as with so much of the activity by this Administration, one has to wonder who, if anyone, is vetting them for compliance with procedural standards, given the fact that legal challenges will almost certainly follow.
What It Means
Any observer could have predicted that opening both coasts to offshore drilling would draw fire from essentially every affected state. The original Obama proposal had also included some coastal lease areas, but opposition from the affected coastal states caused the administration to ultimately bar offshore drilling on both coasts. That would seem to suggest some pre-announcement consultation with at least the “friendly” red state governors, but that does not appear to have happened. What does it say about the seriousness of a sixty-day comment period that even before the notice is published, informal comments by a governor of one state, after only a weekend of deliberation, results in its exclusion from the proposed listing? And what will remain of that policy in a month, given that almost all of the affected coastal states have requested a similar waiver for the same reasons?
The offshore leasing proposal and its immediate revision has all the earmarks of a public relations event, not a serious policy re-evaluation of off-shore leasing. That may reflect confusion about who is in charge, the absence of seasoned management at the agency, or a rush to burnish the Administration’s list of accomplishments in advance of the mid-term elections. Perhaps all of the above. The Trump Administration is certainly entitled to reverse the policies it attacked during the 2016 election, but it also has an obligation to replace those policies with alternatives that are well-thought out through procedures designed to protect them against inevitable litigation challenges.