President Trump signed an executive order Friday that aims to expand offshore drilling for oil and gas, in a move welcomed by the oil and gas industry and greeted with alarm by environmental groups.
"Renewed offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent," Trump said before signing the document. He said previous restrictions on exploration and production deprive the U.S. of "potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth."
The order directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review a five-year plan in which President Obama banned drilling in parts of the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans. Zinke told reporters Thursday night that will be a long process, and a complex one, acknowledging that not all areas have oil or gas, and not all coastal communities want offshore drilling.
But Zinke said revenue from offshore leasing had dropped by $15 billion during the Obama administration, with some of that due to the dropping price of oil, "but not all of it." He added that 94 percent of the nation's outer continental shelf is currently off limits for development of any kind.
The oil and gas industry is enthusiastic about today's executive order. In a statement, Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute said expanding drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico in particular "could create thousands of jobs and provide billions of dollars in government revenue."
Along the Atlantic coast, though, more than 100 cities and towns have passed resolutions against offshore drilling. In Kure Beach, N.C., Mayor Emilie Swearingen said tourism is the second largest industry in the state. "We don't want the devastation from an oil spill," she said. "It's not whether it would happen, but when it would happen."
George Edwardson, president of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, said his council may consider filing suit at some point to challenge an expansion of offshore drilling. "Most of our food comes from the ocean," he said.
Zinke told reporters the administration will not remove the "stringent environmental safeguards already in place." He also said he was optimistic about the development of offshore wind energy.
The Obama administration's drilling bans will remain in place for now. But even if they are eventually rolled back, there are questions about how effective the executive order will be in spurring new drilling. The price of oil is relatively low, hovering at about $50 a barrel, and offshore drilling is an expensive endeavor, especially in places like the Arctic. When asked whether the administration had been approached by any companies interested in drilling in the Arctic, Zinke said, "No."
During Trump's remarks, he stressed that the executive order "reverses the previous administration's Arctic leasing ban."
But it's not clear whether the Trump administration can actually reverse this separate offshore drilling ban, which Obama announced a month before leaving office. He used an obscure provision of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to issue what he called a permanent ban on offshore drilling in large parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Obama administration officials said at the time that the law had no provision to reverse such a ban.
The Trump executive order says he is modifying the text of the Obama memorandum to revert back to earlier designations. But lawyers say it's unclear whether he has the power to do so, because the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act does not explicitly allow a president to get rid of a designation.
"It's uncharted territory for a president to attempt to completely lift a moratorium like the one President Obama instituted," says Jayni Hein, policy director at New York University's Institute for Policy Integrity. Past presidents have tweaked the size of previously designated protected areas, she says, but a full-on repeal is unprecedented and would likely end up in the courts.
The environmental group Oceana described expanding offshore drilling as a "huge, bad stupid mistake." In a statement, the group's Senior Vice President for U.S. Oceans Jacqueline Savitz said Trump was siding "with his oil industry allies, in a move disguised as a job creator."
The executive order also imposes a halt on designating or expanding any National Marine Sanctuary, unless the action "includes a timely, full accounting from the Department of the Interior of any energy or mineral resource potential in the designated area." Zinke says the administration will have 180 days to review all such designations and expansions over the past decade. He likened this to another executive order this week that directs a review of national monuments on public lands.
Last year Obama made headlines when he quadrupled the size of a marine sanctuary in Hawaii. He also created the Atlantic Ocean's first marine monument, preserving roughly 130 miles of sea canyons and underwater mountains off New England.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump will sign an executive order tomorrow that aims to expand offshore drilling. The order will essentially try to undo actions taken by his predecessor, Barack Obama, that restricted drilling in the Arctic Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It also asks for a review of marine monuments that Obama designated.
NPR's Nathan Rott is following the story and joins us now from NPR West in Culver City. Hi, Nate.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Let's start with offshore drilling. What does this executive order mean for the energy industry?
ROTT: Well, that's a complicated answer. I mean on its face, this is something that energy companies are going to be excited about. It's something that they've lobbied for. They felt that the Obama administration was too restrictive when it came to the Outer Continental Shelf, and that's something the Trump administration certainly agrees with. Here's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at a press briefing earlier at the White House.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
RYAN ZINKE: When I came into the office, we looked at what was available for oil and gas and what wasn't. And today, about 94 percent of our Outer Continental Shelf is off-limits for possible development.
ROTT: So this executive order is going to aim to change that. It directs Zinke to review the current policy for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic which was put in place by President Obama. But that's going to take a long time. Zinke himself said that it was a complicated process. It could take two years. And let's also not forget that the price of oil is relatively low right now. So even if they are able to roll back some of these restrictions quickly, it's not clear if we're going to see a lot more drilling.
Another thing that's also unclear is whether the administration can undo a separate ban on offshore drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic that Obama put in place during the last weeks of his presidency. He used this really obscure 1953 law to do that, and the administration then called it a permanent ban. Secretary Zinke didn't really answer questions about whether or not they can reverse that. He just said that everything was up for review.
SHAPIRO: And what about the marine monuments? That sounds like the aquatic version of what the Trump administration did with national monuments on land earlier this week.
ROTT: Exactly. It's very similar. Secretary Zinke even threw out the comparison in the briefing. You might remember that Obama made headlines last year when he hugely expanded a national marine monument in Hawaii, quadrupling the size of it, and named another on in the Atlantic. It would seem that those are the ones that will get the administration's attention first, but Zinke said that all marine monuments made in the last 10 years will be subject to review.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Nathan Rott - thanks, Nate.
ROTT: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.