September 11, 2020
Frank Knapp Jr., Guest columnist
This week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order for a 10-year moratorium on offshore oil exploration and drilling along all of Florida’s coasts and those of Georgia and South Carolina, starting in July 2022.
Mr. Trump has spent nearly four years as president insisting that almost all federal waters off our country’s coasts should be available for exploration and drilling for oil as part of a U.S. energy dominance agenda.
He has instructed his federal agencies to make plans for issuing oil and gas leases in all the Atlantic and all waters off Florida’s coasts. In fact, the preliminary permits needed for offshore oil exploration, including drilling test oil wells, in the Atlantic have already been approved by his administration.
This week’s about-face by Mr. Trump, at least for three states, is clearly one of political expediency since Florida voters overwhelmingly oppose oil drilling off the state’s shores. With the presidential campaign in Florida a dead heat, Mr. Trump hopes to convince more voters that he is on their side on this issue.
But should the president be trusted and is this really a setback for the oil industry?
Critics have speculated that on Nov. 4, Mr. Trump could issue another executive order rescinding the one he made this week.
However, there is no speculation about how a 10-year moratorium starting July 2022 fits nicely into the time frame of Big Oil for offshore drilling.
The date chosen for the moratorium to begin and actions that the administration has not taken are signs that the oil industry might be crying crocodile tears over the Mr. Trump’s moratorium.
Before an oil company decides to drill, it first must do the exploration.
It is exactly that exploration to determine the potential oil deposits in the Atlantic that the Trump administration is continuing to move forward with today.
The initial permits have already been approved for allowing destructive and dangerous seismic airgun blasting to explore for offshore oil from Cape Canaveral to Delaware Bay.
This exploration process will harm commercial, sport, and recreational fishing. It could also result in the release of toxic chemicals from military weapons and radioactive waste drums that were dumped at sea for decades.
And the process will definitely include the one thing Mr. Trump is now taking credit for stopping — the drilling of oil wells. These test wells are part of seismic exploration.
Mr. Trump’s executive order is not stopping this seismic permitting process.
However, a federal lawsuit has temporarily stopped the final permits from being issued.
Should the federal judge rule in favor of the Trump administration before or shortly after this year’s election, seismic testing could begin immediately along Florida’s Atlantic Coast and northward and be completed by July 2022.
Oil companies would then have the information they need for planning and a public relations campaign during a 10-year moratorium. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which creates the oil leasing plan, could even have such a plan ready to go as soon as the moratorium is lifted. This scenario plays right into the petroleum industry time frame.
If President Trump wants to convince Florida voters that he really wants to protect their coasts from the inevitable leaks and spills that are inherent in the oil drilling, transportation and refining process, then he must take two actions immediately.
First, he must direct his Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to quickly deny the seismic testing permits for the Atlantic that are the subject of the federal lawsuit.
Second, he must insist that the Senate pass before November the Coastal and Marine Economies Protection Act, the successful House bill that would permanently ban offshore drilling along the entire Atlantic Coast and the Straits of Florida.
Should the president not take these additional steps, the issue of offshore drilling for oil will be on the ballot this election season.
Voters will have every reason to believe that if they help re-elect Mr. Trump, he will reverse course once again on offshore drilling and with four more years, he will succeed in handing over Florida’s coasts to the oil industry.
Frank Knapp is the co-founder and former president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. He is also is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit to stop permits for offshore oil exploration in the Atlantic.