November 16, 2016
Facing a new president who has said he favors opening the East Coast to oil and gas exploration, some environmental groups are pressing President Barack Obama to declare the waters off Virginia and other Atlantic states permanently off-limits to drilling before he leaves office in January.
“Let’s lock it and throw away the key,” Claire Douglass, a campaign director for the group Oceana, wrote in a column published recently in The Hill, a politics-oriented newspaper based in Washington.
Otherwise, Douglass said in an interview, “we can expect to see the Atlantic back in play again.”
The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council are among other groups that have called on Obama to use his powers to give stronger protection to the Atlantic, and have asked him to extend it to the Arctic as well.
The president has twice declared federal waters – off parts of Alaska – indefinitely off-limits to exploration, claiming powers he said were given to him under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. Some legal analysts have said President-elect Donald Trump might seek to overturn those declarations or any others that Obama signs before he leaves office. In that case, they said, the issue likely would be tested in court.
The push for a long-lasting or even permanent prohibition on Atlantic drilling comes as proponents and opponents of offshore exploration try to sort out the effect of Trump’s election last week. The billionaire Republican has said he wants to expand U.S. production of fossil fuels, including offshore.
The Obama administration last year included Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia in its 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas plan, but in March the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management yanked the Atlantic states from the blueprint, citing opposition from coastal communities, the Navy and NASA. The reversal is expected to soon receive a final approval from Obama.
A conservative legal watchdog group, the Washington-based Cause of Action Institute, this week filed a federal lawsuit against the Interior Department, seeking records related to the bureau’s decision in March. The group’s suit, filed in Washington, claims federal officials have not responded as required under law to its Freedom of Information Act requests. It said in a news release that it’s trying to determine whether the reversal on Atlantic drilling was “politically motivated.”
Administration officials also continue to weigh whether to approve applications by six companies for seismic surveys for oil and gas along the East Coast – activities that are regulated in a separate process.
Environmental groups have asked the administration to reject the testing as well. They say it threatens to harm whales and other marine mammals and argue the surveys would fuel pressure from energy companies to eventually open the door to drilling.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is expected to vote today on an amendment that would give Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia a 37.5 percent slice of any royalties paid to the federal government for oil and gas wells that might someday be drilled off their coasts. The proposal from Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana was modeled after a 2006 law that provides the same percentage to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for new deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico.
Politico reported Wednesday that Cassidy’s amendment is unlikely to get the 60 votes it needs to clear a Democratic filibuster. Both of Virginia’s senators, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, signed on to the amendment earlier this year. But that was before the Obama administration moved toward a reversal on Atlantic drilling and before Kaine was named as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate.
A spokesperson for Kaine said that he plans to vote against the amendment today. Prior to joining the Clinton ticket, the senator took a position against “speculative drilling activities,” partly because of the military’s concerns, the spokesperson said. That also put him in line with Clinton’s position on the issue.
A spokesperson for Warner didn’t state how the senator would vote on the amendment, but said in an email that he too has concerns now about the legislation because of the Navy’s opposition to drilling, but also because the original language has changed in other ways to “unfairly” disadvantage Virginia.
Opponents have argued that no amount of money to the states is worth making a bet on oil and gas operations along the Atlantic.
“Offshore drilling is a serious threat to our climate, marine wildlife and our coastal communities. The risks are just too high,” according to an online petition posted this week by NextGen Climate, a group funded by hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, who has been active in Democratic politics.
Another group called the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast claims it represents more than 12,000 businesses opposed to seismic testing and exploration. Among the alliance members that signed on to a letter to Obama last month outlining their concerns were the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association.
(The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce is a member and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast)