OCEAN CITY — President Trump late last week signed an executive order reopening vast areas off the mid-Atlantic coast, including Ocean City and Assateague, to offshore oil exploration and drilling, renewing a years-long battle that resulted in the previous administration reversing the plan.
Communities up and down the east coast and throughout the mid-Atlantic region breathed a collective sigh of relief last March when the Obama administration reversed course on a controversial plan to lease three million acres off the mid-Atlantic coast to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas reserves. The federal government’s reversal came after a year of strong opposition to the proposal from local, state and elected officials, environmental advocacy groups and hundreds of coastal communities on the coast whose economies rely on clean oceans, healthy natural resources, tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.
Last Friday, Trump issued an executive order aimed at expanding offshore drilling for oil and gas and directed Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to begin reviewing a five-year plan to open areas deemed off limits by the Obama administration’s moratorium last March.
“Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs and make America more secure and far more energy independent,” said Trump in a statement before signing the executive order. “Previous restrictions on exploration and production deprive the U.S. of potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth.”
The administration appears to be facing an uphill battle on getting the moratorium lifted on exploration and drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Arctic Circle. When the Obama administration announced in 2015 a proposal to lease roughly three million acres off the mid-Atlantic coast for oil and natural gas exploration and eventually excavation, communities, local governments and environmental advocacy groups launched a protracted battle to get the decision reversed.
The strategy ultimately worked when 120 east coast communities from Maine to Georgia including Ocean City, along with 1,200 elected officials and over 35,000 coastal businesses fired off letters and resolutions opposing the plan. That same strategy will likely be employed with Trump’s new executive order signed last Friday.
Assateague Coastal Trust Executive Director and Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips was on the Boardwalk in Ocean City early last Friday morning to begin rallying local support against the proposal.
“With our beautiful Atlantic Ocean behind me and our beautiful Ocean City beaches right behind me, I’m here unfortunately to let you know that late last night, President Trump signed another executive order. This one is going to re-open the Atlantic Ocean right here off Ocean City to seismic blasting and oil exploration again and the new executive order is going to take a look at dismantling the prohibitions that we got into place this past year to prevent oil drilling off our coastline and the fight is back on,” she said. “We are going to need everyone’s support to help us fight this again. We did it last time and we’re going to take what worked last time and we’re going to be successful again, but we need your help now more than ever.”
The executive order was issued just weeks in advance of the Maryland Public Service Commission’s ultimate decision on a proposed offshore wind farm off the coast of Ocean City, a point not lost on Phillips.
“I want to remind all of us who live in Ocean City we have a choice to make right now,” she said. “We can be looking at the horizon at oil derricks or we can be looking at the horizon at windmills. I think the choice is pretty obvious.”
By mid-morning last Friday, a coalition of U.S. Senators representing east coast states, including Maryland’s Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, had already fired off a letter to Zinke.
“Allowing drilling anywhere on the east or west coasts would threaten key economic drivers for these states such as fishing and tourism with the risk of an oil spill,” the letter reads. “For instance, fishing off the east coast states produces roughly $1.75 billion in direct value for these states and more than $4 billion in total economic activity each year. Tourism on the east coast generates hundreds of billions of dollars in additional economic activity and supports an estimated 800,000 jobs. Offshore oil spills don’t respect state boundaries and spill off the coast of one state could easily affect another.”
For his part, Zinke responded by saying he understood the environmental concerns and the risks, but the potential benefits outweighed the dangers.
“Now I understand people may be concerned about any environmental impact that development may have and that’s a valid concern that the president and I share,” he said. “The truth is, we fully expect that during the review process we will find ways to improve our regulatory requirements that strengthen safety precautions. Good stewardship of our lands and waters and responsible offshore development are not mutually exclusive.”
Like many coastal areas up and down the east coast, Delaware was also strongly opposed to the plan to open the mid-Atlantic area to offshore drilling the last time around, and Governor John Carney vowed to renew the fight.
“Delaware does not support any exploration or extraction of fossil fuels from the Atlantic Ocean. To risk our coastal economy and natural resources on offshore drilling for oil and gas would also imperil our state’s environmental and economic health,” he said. “Delaware’s coastal resources directly or indirectly support some 60,000 jobs and almost $7 billion in economic production from tourism to industry to commercial fishing. We should be investing in our beaches and our parks, and taking steps to protect our coastline from the impacts of climate change, not taking these kinds of unnecessary risks.”
Other environmental advocacy groups are already making their displeasure with the executive order known. Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration Kim Coble’s statement read, “The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and drilling offshore poses unjustifiable risks to the bay, its living resources, the tourism economy and the many jobs dependent on clean water. Offshore drilling creates a new pollution source, one capable of significant, even devastating environmental damage from drilling, transportation, storage or refinement.”
Oceana, an environmental advocacy group that helped lead the effort to reverse the Obama administration’s proposal, vowed to jump back into the fray again after Trump signed the executive order last week.
“Coastal business leaders oppose offshore drilling in the Atlantic because it’s a job killer, not a jobs creator,” said Oceana’s Senior Vice President for U.S. Oceans Jacqueline Savitz. “From the industrialization of coastal communities to the risk of a BP Deepwater Horizon-like oil disaster, offshore drilling would forever change the fabric of the American Atlantic, threatening thriving coastal economies and lucrative industries like tourism, recreation and fishing. Other energy ventures like offshore wind promise to create many more jobs without threatening to coat our coastlines with oil.”