Zinke Seeks to Still Waves of Worry About Offshore Oil Leasing

By Alan Kovski

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has signaled to one lawmaker after another that their coastal states may not see any exploration for oil and natural gas, despite the extraordinarily broad scope of his proposed five-year leasing plan.

Members of Congress, governors, state legislators, and coastal communities have been saying Zinke dropped Florida out of the plan after the state’s vocal opposition and should give them the same consideration. Zinke has gotten the message, apparently: He has been trying to calm the fears of lawmakers from California to Maine, although at the same time he may be shrinking the hopes of oil companies.

Zinke told lawmakers in mid-March he recognizes the deep opposition in their coastal states to offshore oil and gas drilling. He made a point of downplaying the resource potential of many areas, implying that lease sales for those areas made little sense.

“It’s good to know that he hears loud and clear that Californians oppose offshore oil and gas drilling,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told Bloomberg Environment. But Californians should not rest easy, he said.

“Oh, I think all of it is still in play. This administration loves nothing more than to stick it to California,” Huffman said, calling the plan “political from the start.”

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), from another state strongly opposed to offshore oil drilling, also was wary.

“I think he registered that he clearly understands the commonwealth’s position, and he understands it is bipartisan,” she said.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R)'s administration told Zinke last year it opposes opening areas of the North Atlantic adjacent to the state for exploration.

Getting the Debate Going

The Jan. 4 draft proposal called for lease sales in 98 percent of the federal offshore. It was a step to get the discussion going, Zinke told lawmakers during subsequent Senate and House committee hearings.

The proposal was exactly what was needed to start a national debate on an important subject, Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, told Bloomberg Environment March 29. The association, which represents more than 300 companies, advocate for offshore energy development.

Still, Zinke may have gotten more blowback than he anticipated. He made a point—without being asked—of telling Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) March 13 that there do not appear to be oil and gas resources “of any weight” off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and most of California.

He looked at Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) and added that the same was true for the Maine offshore.

Two days later, Zinke made the same point to Tsongas, again without being asked, concerning the hydrocarbon resource potential off Massachusetts. “There are really no resources off the coast of Massachusetts,” he said.

Petroleum geologists are not so sure no such resources are off Maine or Massachusetts. Luthi noted that oil and gas fields developed off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland suggest the potential also may exist off New England.

“It’s really not clear how much resources are available off our coasts,” Tsongas also said.

But the determining factor for her is that the costs and risks to fishing and tourism far outweigh the potential benefits of oil and gas development off her state.

One State Off the Table?

Zinke took much criticism for his tweeted announcement, five days after the Jan. 4 release of the draft proposed plan, that he would not go ahead with leasing off Florida. He was accused of playing politics to help Gov. Rick Scott (R) prepare to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who is up for reelection in 2018.

Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) asked Zinke during the March 15 hearing if the assurance given to Scott about Florida was firm.

“My commitment is we will do no new oil and gas platforms off the coast of Florida. I can’t make it any clearer than that,” Zinke said.

Despite Zinke’s assurances, the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is obligated to follow the procedures set out by the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act for leasing, which means leasing off Florida continues to be studied along with leasing off other states.

Luthi said the eastern Gulf of Mexico, currently off limits for leasing within 125 miles of Florida, would be the logical extension of oil and gas development in the central gulf.

Nothing in the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act prohibits the Interior secretary from musing about what his final decisions will be, Luthi said, unwilling to treat Zinke’s remarks as the final word on Florida.

Some Areas Uncertain

The Obama administration proposed allowing exploration in federal waters from Virginia to the southern edge of Georgia, only to drop that area out of the plan after much public outcry.

It remains to be seen whether the areas dropped from the Obama plan will stay in or drop out of the latest plan, which is expected to be narrowed as it goes along. Southern California, known to be rich in offshore oil—including some discovered fields that have not been developed—also remains an open question.

The Beaufort and Chukchi seas in the Arctic stand a better chance of being included in the final plan, given the support of many Alaskans—including the state’s congressional delegation—for oil development.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced March 28 it is gathering information for a possible lease sale in the Beaufort in 2019, though the agency cautioned that the sale might not happen.

Arbitrary and Capricious?

Huffman, the California congressman, said the Trump administration’s five-year plan could be overturned in court through a challenge alleging it is arbitrary and capricious, a standard written into the Administrative Procedure Act. He cited Zinke’s tweeted decision on Florida as an example.

“I think everything is an exercise in improvisation with this administration,” Huffman said. “They’re making it up as they go along.”

Luthi did not sound dismayed by the criticism of the plan from members of Congress, environmental groups, governors, and others.

“In Washington, D.C., anything worth reacting to is worth overreacting to,” he said.

The public needs this debate especially in light of the long-term energy needs not only of U.S. citizens but the world, Luthi said. The U.S. is flush with oil and gas now, but that does not mean the nation and the world will have what they need in the future as the global populations adds another 2 billion people by mid-century, he said.

The draft proposal in early January was the first of three stages for development of a leasing plan. The next stage for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, after review of public comments and its own analyses of various factors, will be the proposed plan, due in late fall, according to Zinke.

That would leave time for a final version sometime in the first half of 2019 so that the plan could go into effect July 1, the typical start date for a five-year plan.