President Donald Trump issued an executive order reversing restrictions on offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans imposed by former President Barack Obama shortly before he left office.
Trump says the Obama restrictions unnecessarily closed access to important domestic energy resources. Trump’s order also instructs federal officials to assess the potential for energy exploration in recently declared or expanded marine sanctuaries in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
At an April 28 White House ceremony attended by Vice President Mike Pence, members of Congress, and representatives of the oil and gas industry, Trump unveiled his “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.”
‘Ensures Energy Security’
According to the executive order, “America must put the energy needs of American families and businesses first and continue implementing a plan that ensures energy security and economic vitality for decades to come. … [L]ow energy prices, driven by an increased American energy supply, will benefit American families and help reinvigorate American manufacturing and job growth. … [I]t shall be the policy of the United States to encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf, in order to maintain the Nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security … for the benefit of the American people, while ensuring that any such activity is safe and environmentally responsible.”
Speaking at the signing event, Trump said the United States has vast reserves of oil and natural gas offshore, “but the federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration, and when they say closed, they mean closed.”
Arctic, Atlantic, Gulf, and Monuments
Under Trump’s five-year plan, millions of offshore acres could be opened for oil and gas production. Trump’s order instructs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to consider offering new leases in each of the following Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) Planning Areas: Western Gulf of Mexico, Central Gulf of Mexico, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet (Alaska), Mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic.
The executive order also directs Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to refrain from designating or expanding any national marine sanctuary unless the sanctuary designation or expansion includes a timely and full accounting from the Interior Department of any energy or mineral resource potential in the designated area and the potential impact the proposed designation or expansion would have on those resources.
Additionally, the order instructs the Commerce Department to review all marine national monuments designated or expanded under the Antiquities Act of 1906 in the past 10 years and determine their budgetary and offshore oil and gas production impacts.
Substantial Energy Potential
The Interior Department estimates America’s OCS contains approximately 90 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 327 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas. By itself, the United States’ portion of the Gulf of Mexico has an estimated 48.46 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 219.46 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas.
“As of March 1, 2017,” a White House “Fact Sheet” states, “only 16.3 million acres on the OCS (out of a total of 1.7 billion acres) are under lease for oil and gas development (3,087 active leases) and 4.4 million of those acres (885 leases) are producing oil and natural gas. More than 97 percent of the leases are in the Gulf of Mexico. … These 16.3 million acres account for 18 percent of domestic oil production and 4 percent of U.S. natural gas production.”
The executive order reverses several actions undertaken by the Obama administration in the weeks after the November 8, 2016, election. Before leaving office, Obama barred oil and gas exploration and production in large sections of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Arctic near Alaska and an offshore area in the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Massachusetts to Virginia.
Activists Fight Order
Less than a week after Trump signed the executive order, a coalition of environmental activist groups—led by the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and League of Conservation Voters—filed suit against the administration. The lawsuit argues Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which Obama used to withdraw the Arctic and Atlantic OCS areas in question from oil and gas exploration and production, does not provide for such actions to be reversed.
James Taylor, president of the Spark of Freedom Foundation, says the activists are mistaken in objecting to offshore oil and gas production.
“Environmental activists’ objections to offshore drilling are rooted in their opposition to oil and natural gas as U.S. energy sources,” said Taylor. “Such opposition is misguided, as there is no current feasible substitute for oil in transportation fuel, and it is better to have U.S.-produced oil as an option to compete against foreign oil.
“More importantly, natural gas is an affordable, low-emissions power source for electricity, responsible for ongoing declines in U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions,” Taylor said. “True environmentalists should support more, rather than less, natural gas production.”
Jay Lehr—editor of Wiley’s Encyclopedia of Nuclear Energy, Alternative Energy, and Shale Gas—says the United States could lead the world in fossil-fuel production but was held back by the Obama administration.
“I am happily stunned by the breadth and speed with which President Trump has set about to have the American public benefit from the vast energy resources we possess,” Lehr said. “It will mean cheaper fuel, more and better jobs, and a healthier economy for years to come.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.