Renewed Focus on Offshore Drilling Generates Concern in Massachusetts and other Coastal States.

On April 28, 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order called Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy (Order).   The Order established a policy of “energy security and economic vitality” through offshore energy exploration and production.  It also directed the Secretary of Department of the Interior to review existing offshore oil and gas leasing plans. Pursuant to the Order, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently released the draft proposal of the 2019-2024 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program (OCS Program).  The draft OCS Program substantially deviates from the prior administration’s offshore leasing program and has caused concern among environmental groups and officials from coastal states such as Massachusetts.

According to a January 4, 2018 press release from the DOI, the draft OCS Program will open over 90% of available offshore acreage to oil and gas exploration and development; the existing lease program, however, makes 94% of available acreage unavailable.  As noted in the press release, the draft OCS Program calls for 47 lease sales in 25 out of the 26 planning areas.  Of local importance, the draft OCS allows for offshore drilling in the Atlantic for the first time since 1993, including 2 lease sales in the North Atlantic.

Citing environmental concerns, Florida Governor Rick Scott was once of the first public officials to voice opposition to the draft OCS Program. Following a meeting with Governor Scott, Secretary Zinke announced that Florida’s coast would be removed from future drilling and exploration. However, Governor Scott was not alone; numerous public officials from both coasts (including governors, senators, representatives, and municipal officials) have requested exemptions from drilling.  As a result, the Secretary’s administrative process and discretion is sure to be scrutinized by officials from states subject to oil and gas drilling.

Closer to home, a congressional delegation recently introduced legislation to ban oil and gas leasing off the coast of New England. In Massachusetts, the fishing industry plays a large economic role, particularly for coastal communities such as New Bedford and Gloucester.  Raising concerns over impacts to fishing, the New England Fishery Management Council recently called for the exclusion of drilling off the coasts of New England and the mid-Atlantic states.  Similarly, tourism is crucial to the economy of New England coastal states, especially for areas such as Cape Cod and the islands.  As a result, these legislators have voiced concerns about impacts to fishing, tourism, and recreation. I expect further studies of North Atlantic oil and gas leasing will evaluate the potential impacts on these activities.

Also of relevance to the New England States, the Order instructed the Secretary of Commerce to “conduct a review of all designations and expansions of National Marine Sanctuaries and of all designations and expansions of Marine National Monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906.”  In the waning days of his administration, President Barack Obama created the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located 130 miles off the southeast coast of Cape Cod.  The ultimate effect of this review on this new monument is unclear, but certainly worth monitoring.

Moving forward, the DOI will take additional procedural steps before finalizing the OCS Program.  The DOI will complete further studies and hold additional public comment periods.    During its administrative process, DOI will likely analyze potential impacts to fishing, tourism, and recreation in proposed lease areas.   And with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill still on many people’s minds, balancing environmental concerns and offshore energy development may prove to be a challenging and lengthy process.