Trump’s Offshore Oil-Drilling Plan Sidelined Indefinitely

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt cites recent court decision blocking Arctic drilling

Wall Street Journal
April 25, 2019

By Timothy Puko

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration’s proposal to vastly expand offshore oil and gas drillinghas been sidelined indefinitely as the Interior Department grapples with a recent court decision that blocks Arctic drilling, according to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

The ruling by a federal judge last month may force Interior officials to wait until the case goes through potentially lengthy appeals before they can make a final decision on what offshore areas to open up for the oil-and-gas industry, Mr. Bernhardt said.

“By the time the court rules, that may be discombobulating to our plan,” Mr. Bernhardt told The Wall Street Journal, in his first interview since his confirmation as Interior Secretary April 11.

“What if you guess wrong?” Mr. Bernhardt added, speaking to the uncertainties surrounding the legal appeals process. “I’m not sure that’s a very satisfactory and responsible use of resources.”

In the ruling last month, a federal judge said that an Obama-era ban on drilling in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska must remain in place unless Congress passes legislation to end it.

Boosting U.S. oil and gas production is central to President Donald Trump’s energy policy, leading the Interior Department a year ago to propose opening offshore drilling around nearly the entire country.

The department framed that as a preliminary proposal that could shrink, but at its peak could have offered for sale the largest number of oil and gas leases in U.S. history starting late this year, opening up 90% of offshore areas for drilling as part of a five-year plan.

But the idea faced trouble from its earliest days, drawing swift opposition from governors of coastal states, including some Republicans, who worried about the risk of oil spills from drilling accidents on tourism-dependent economies.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke started backtracking in less than a week, promising that Florida would be off limits.

At the same time, commercial interest in complicated offshore drilling has diminished in recent years as U.S. oil production has surged thanks to new finds and ways of tapping into shale deposits in the middle of the country.

Friction with coastal states is still an issue, and Mr. Bernhardt said he heard frequent questions on the subject during his Senate confirmation process. Federal law requires the Interior department to consider input from local elected leaders in the five-year plans it sets to manage the waters of the Outer continental shelf, which typically start close enough to the coast for rigs to be visible from shore and reach more than 200 miles out to sea. And Mr. Bernhardt said he is still in the process of finding common ground with coastal governors.

“Areas of comity are generally found on that if you look back at the history of the program,” Mr. Bernhardt said. “Certainly that is a very important component and I made that assurance to a lot of senators.”

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