April 25, 2019
Rob Hotakainen, E&E News reporter
President Trump’s long-awaited plan to open more than 90% of all federal waters to offshore drilling is on indefinite hold, the Interior Department said today.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt made the announcement in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story.
As one of his first major acts, Bernhardt sidelined the revised plan while his department assesses the fallout of a court decision last month that could affect how Interior officials decide to proceed, he said.
A federal judge ruled that the Trump administration couldn’t scrap President Obama’s drilling ban for most of the Arctic Ocean off Alaska and for a small part of the Atlantic coast without Congress first passing a law.
Bernhardt told the newspaper that the case could go through a long appeals process, leaving the plan’s future in doubt.
“By the time the court rules, that may be discombobulating to our plan,” Bernhardt said, granting his first interview since his confirmation as Interior secretary April 11.
Bernhardt said making a move before legal appeals are concluded may not be “a very satisfactory and responsible use of resources.”
“What if you guess wrong?” he told the Journal.
The Interior Department confirmed the announcement this afternoon.
“Given the recent court decision, the department is simply evaluating all of its options to determine the best pathway to accomplish the mission entrusted to it by the president,” Interior spokeswoman Molly Block said in an email.
Bernhardt’s move did not come as a complete surprise.
Earlier this month, Joe Balash, assistant secretary for lands and minerals management, told E&E News it would take some time for the department to figure out whether to appeal the March 29 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska.
“We need to get to a place where we understand what’s in and out after this court decision, and figure out how or where to make changes,” Balash said in an interview.
Many opponents hope that putting the plan on hold may kill it for good as the 2020 election season nears.
“This delay could push off any final plan approval until after the next presidential election and possibly a new president who could stop the new plan from being implemented,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce in Columbia, S.C.
After fighting Trump’s drilling plan for months, green groups welcomed Bernhardt’s announcement.
“This is welcome news,” said Erik Grafe, lead Earthjustice attorney on the Arctic-Atlantic case. “There should not be expanded oil and gas leasing in our oceans. And Interior has no business at all planning leases in areas like the Arctic Ocean and Atlantic canyons that are permanently withdrawn from leasing altogether.”
“It’s ludicrous that the Trump administration wanted to open nearly every coast in this country for oil drilling in the first place,” said Janet Redman, the Greenpeace USA climate campaign director. “That’s the exact thing you shouldn’t do when scientists warn we have just a few years left to stave off climate catastrophe.”
Alexandra Adams, legislative director for the nature program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the drilling plan “wildly unpopular and risky” and said it should be “more than sidelined.”
“It should be deep-sixed permanently,” she said.
Interior officials had been tweaking their five-year plan for months, with opponents and proponents alike braced for a new version to be released any day.
It was first announced as a preliminary proposal in January 2018 by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who said it would make the nation more dominant in its energy production.
But the idea drew quick and widespread resistance, with then-Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott among the first to ask for an exemption for his state. Plenty of other governors and state and local officials followed suit.
“Every single governor from Maine to Florida and from Washington to California oppose offshore drilling off their coast — every single one, Republican and Democrat alike,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
In his interview, Bernhardt said he received many questions on the drilling plan from senators during his confirmation process, and he said he’s working with coastal governors to try to find common ground.
“Areas of comity are generally found on that if you look back at the history of the program,” Bernhardt said. “Certainly that is a very important component, and I made that assurance to a lot of senators.”
“Secretary Bernhardt may be closely aligned with the oil industry, but he also recognizes the political reality of such an unpopular proposal,” said Nat Mund, director of federal affairs for the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the announcement “an enormous win for every American who believes there’s more to environmental policy than Chevron’s bottom line.”
“This administration has treated public waters like a bottomless cash cow for Big Oil from day one, and if it takes a court order to get them to see reason, so be it,” he said.