Editor’s Note: Sierra Weaver is a senior attorney and leader of the coast and wetlands program at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Only days into the official comment period on the Trump administration’s plan to open nearly all US waters to offshore drilling, the administration has exposed this plan for exactly what it is – playing politics with our coast.
When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he was removing Florida from the plan after meeting with the governor for a matter of minutes, it was clear this has nothing to do with listening to local and state voices, the economic interest of the coast or science. If it did, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia would not be a part of this plan. Why else but politics would President Donald Trump, via Zinke, hand such an obvious victory to Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, who has bigger political ambitions? The White House has made it clear in other ways — including with public praise from the President – that Scott is a priority for them.
Just two years ago, facing pressure from communities, businesses and associations, and political leaders across the South and the political spectrum, the Obama administration scrapped a controversial plan to open the Southeast Atlantic coast to industrial oil and gas development for the first time. Now, despite this tidal wave of opposition, the Trump administration is turning its back on coastal communities and moving forward with a new attempt to force offshore drilling into a region that doesn’t want it.
On its face, tweeting that the administration is removing one state from the plan discredits the thorough, considered process that is required by the federal government to make a major decision such as instilling oil operations off the coast of certain states. Not to mention administrative law requirements that protect against “arbitrary and capricious” actions. Zinke’s late-night tweet, especially since he’s leaving other states that have opposed offshore drilling in the plan, certainly seems arbitrary.
Of all the waters in this plan, the ones in the Southeast are perhaps most in the crosshairs – and the people who live along the coast know that development in the Atlantic is fundamentally a threat to all that is special about the places they call home. The industrialization and infrastructure associated with drilling — the rigs, refineries, pipelines and traffic – is not merely a nuisance; it would wreck our environment, economy, and quality of life.
A catastrophic spill like what we saw in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 could happen off our shores and devastate the healthy waters and clean beaches that are critical to the tourism and fishing industries that boost our economy. And oil spills don’t care where one state ends and another begins, so Florida remains at risk even if rigs won’t be directly off its shores. Even in the best-case scenario, routine spills and accidents occur regularly with any offshore drilling, and it’s simply not worth the risk for our communities, our environment and most of all our economy.
The fishing and tourism industries are the backbone of our coastal economy. Zinke cited Florida’s tourism economy as one of the reasons it was removed, but that holds true for the entire Atlantic Coast. In 2012, there were nearly 250,000 ocean-related jobs in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, contributing $14.6 billion to the economies in the region and more than $7.5 billion in wages in the same year. The tourism and recreation sector alone supported more than 170,000 jobs and contributed more than $6 billion to the regional economy, while the commercial fishing industry contributed nearly $1 billion to the region.
All this could be at risk. And so, under the last administration, the Southeast rejected any plan to open the Atlantic to oil and gas development. That should have been the end of it.
Instead, the Trump administration is willfully ignoring this opposition and the formal requests of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to keep drilling away from their shores, along with opposition from countless other elected officials across the region (including during the Obama administration) and on both sides of the aisle, including Republican Govs. Henry McMaster of South Carolina of and Larry Hogan of Maryland.
And despite proclamations about wanting to hear from coastal residents as they finalize a decision, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management apparently does not plan to hold hearings in most of the very coastal communities that would be most impacted, as they have done in the past even though they have promised to conduct an open and public process.
Worse still, the administration is proposing this at the same time they are pushing to roll back the offshore drilling safety rules that were put in place in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico disaster. The decision is simply stunning.
Yet this approach to energy policy – massive giveaways to fossil-fuel giants, politicians and lobbyists at the expense of the public – is becoming typical for this administration. It is the common thread that defines new initiatives but risks our safety. It is the reason the Southeast is once again being forced to fight to protect its shores.
Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. Coastal communities are prepared to fight even harder to save the Atlantic Ocean and our beloved beaches from this risky and controversial proposal just as we did before. And community leaders and business owners are gathering together, united once more. And we will be ready to take legal action to protect the coast if necessary.
It’s time the Trump administration take seriously its responsibilities and begin to listen, not make decisions on the future of the coast based on political favors.