Elected officials from coastal states took disparate views over the Trump administration's proposal to open more than 90% of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to oil and natural gas exploration, which garnered more than 630,000 public comments.
Most of the comments appeared to be in opposition to the draft proposed program (DPP) for the OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which the Department of Interior's (DOI) Bureau of Ocean Energy Management unveiled earlier this year.
Early indications show that, in general, officials from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Democrats and environmental groups oppose the proposal, while Gulf Coast states, Republicans and supporters of the oil and gas industry support the move. It also appeared that attorneys general (AG) for 12 states could sue to block any changes to the OCS program.
The original proposal included 47 potential lease sales in 25 of 26 planning areas, with 19 sales offshore Alaska, seven in the Pacific Region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), and nine in the Atlantic Region.
However, after meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott after the DPP was issued, DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke scratched offshore Florida from consideration, citing opposition to the plan. That exemption didn't go unnoticed by lawmakers and officials from a dozen other states, many of whom submitted some of the 633,887 public comments DOI received, according to the website regulations.gov.
The AGs of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia told Zinke that the DPP "represents disregard for vital state interests, economies and resources." The AGs also said the plan could imperil up to three million jobs.
"You pledged that, under your leadership, the DOI would be a 'collaborative department' that would 'solve problems rather than create them," the AGs wrote in a letter dated Feb. 1. "But the DPP fails to live up to those promises. Instead, it would create multiple problems for nearly everyone who participates in or benefits from our states' coastal and maritime economies.
The AGs said if the DPP was not terminated, they would submit formal comments by last Friday, the final day to submit comments. "Among other things, our comments will detail the DPP's legal insufficiencies and the many harms that it would inflict on our states," they wrote.
After Zinke met with Scott and ultimately decided to exclude Florida from any offshore drilling, New Jersey's entire congressional delegation sent the DOI secretary a letter inviting him to visit, with hopes that he would do likewise for the Garden State.
"Drilling off the coast of New Jersey puts [the state's] critical economic drivers at risk, and for that reason, we strongly oppose the recently-issued draft proposed plan," the lawmakers wrote in a letter dated Jan. 11. "Our concerns are shared by generations of New Jersey families who have lived and vacationed along our pristine shores; by fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean coastal waters; and by the small businesses that rely on tourism to earn a family wage and to create jobs.
In a separate letter, also dated Jan. 11, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was "troubled" by Zinke's decision to exclude Florida from the drilling program.
"Your decision to give a last-minute exemption to Florida while ignoring over 10 other states who followed the proper legal procedures is a waste of taxpayer dollars and may violate the requirements of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act," Cantwell wrote. "It also suggests you are more concerned with politics than proper process when it comes to making key decisions that affect our coastal communities."
However, there appeared to be some daylight among Democrats on the issue of offshore drilling.
Thirty-one Senate Democrats and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who caucuses with the Democrats, penned a Jan. 9 letter to Zinke expressing their "strong opposition" to the DPP. However, only 24 of the senators represent coastal states, including Hawaii.
And while nearly all of the coastal states with two Democratic senators signed the letter, there were some noteworthy exceptions: Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Virginia's Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats, also did not sign the letter.
However, there is also support for the DPP. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) called the proposal "another step in the right direction," but he expressed disappointment that the Eastern Gulf of Mexico (EGOM) was excluded from the OCS proposal.
"I strongly urge you to withdraw the recent changes for the EGOM and to allow for a robust public input process that is more capable of considering all federal interests than the whims of a single state," Graves wrote to Zinke on Jan. 11.
"If Florida -- one of the largest energy consumers in the nation that largely relies on Gulf and other energy producing states to power it -- can dictate federal energy policy without regard to the tens of billions of dollars in federal financial impacts, then the needs of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama should have control of their respective share of energy revenues."
Republican state Sen. Paul Sanford of Alabama also supports the proposal. He cited a study that estimated expanded energy development in the GOM could add more than 21,000 new jobs in Alabama and bring in more than $3.5 billion in state revenue.
"With our growing energy needs and nearby infrastructure already in place, the DOI has taken an important step by proposing expanded opportunities to develop GOM energy, which could ensure a stable long-term domestic energy supply that provides Alabama families and businesses with more income to spend on goods, services and investments essential to our economic health and standard of living," Sanford wrote on Jan. 22.
In neighboring Mississippi, Republican Gary Staples, who serves in the state's House of Representatives, cited similar estimates that expanded GOM energy development could support nearly 12,000 new jobs and bring in more than $1.6 billion to the state's coffers.
"Continued and expanded GOM access would increase these economic gains for Mississippi residents and ensure than the Gulf Coast continues to supply American consumers across the country with reliable energy," Staples wrote in a Jan. 17 letter.
Thirteen members of Alaska's state Senate also backed the DPP, adding that they agreed with the state's federal congressional delegation that "the strongest near-term prospective offshore program should focus on the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea and Cook Inlet, particularly in 'high petroleum potential areas.'"
"Overall, [Zinke's] approach to the DPP is a wise one. The proposed schedule does not prematurely foreclose exploration planning. That's a much needed change." The Feb. 7 letter was signed by 12 Republicans and one Democrat, state Sen. Lyman Hoffman, who caucuses with the GOP.