WASHINGTON, DC, January 4, 2018 (ENS) – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke today infuriated environmentalists by proposing to make over 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf’s total acreage and more than 98 percent of undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas resources in federal offshore areas available for future exploration and development.

Zinke called the move “the next step” for developing the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024.

The program proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, OCS, off limits to oil and gas development.

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Offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico near Port Arthur, Texas, 2007 (Photo by Mark Goebel)

“Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks,” said Zinke.

“Today’s announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period. Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks,” the secretary said.

“The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy dominance,” Zinke said.

Earlier this year, 155 members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate sent letters to Secretary Zinke in support of a new five-year plan that recognizes America’s potential for energy dominance.

The Draft Proposed Program includes 47 potential lease sales in 25 of the 26 planning areas – 19 sales off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific Region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, and nine in the Atlantic Region.

This is the largest number of lease sales ever proposed for the National OCS Program’s five-year lease schedule.

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, counselor for energy policy at the Department of the Interior.

“This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations,” DeVito said.

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Oil rigs at Dauphin Island in the Gulf of Mexico near the coast of Alabama, May 17, 2017 (Photo by Alex Magard)

Release of the Draft Proposed Program is an early step in a multi-year process to develop a final National Outer Continental Shelf Program for 2019-2024.

Today’s draft proposal was informed by 816,000 comments from a wide variety of stakeholders, including state governments, federal agencies, public interest groups, industry, and the public. Before the program is finalized, the public will have additional opportunities to provide input.

The 2017-2022 Five Year Program will continue to be implemented until the new National OCS Program is approved.

“This plan is an early signal to the global marketplace that the United States intends to remain a global leader in responsible offshore energy development and produce affordable American energy for many decades to come,” said Katharine MacGregor, principal deputy assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management.

“This proposed plan shows our commitment to a vibrant offshore energy economy that supports the thousands of men and women working in the offshore energy industry, from supply vessels to rig crews,” MacGregor said.

But conservation groups are warning that the opening of offshore waters to drilling is an invitation to disaster. They cannot forget the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon 4.9 million barrel oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from a broken well head, and they maintain that an oil spill in the remote, icy waters of the Arctic would be impossible to clean up.

Brad Ack, the World Wildlife Fund’s senior vice president for oceans, considers the potential for a spill in Arctic waters off the U.S. continental shelf to be the most dangerous part of the Trump administration’s new policy.

“It’s back to the future again with this proposal to promote risky offshore drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean. Previous failed attempts demonstrated that the region’s unforgiving conditions are no place to explore for fossil fuels the world no longer needs,” he said.

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Kayaktivists from the sHellNo! Action Council greeted Shell’s Arctic Destroyer oil rig in Port Angeles, Washington. April 17, 2015 (Photo by Backbone Campaign)

“With an oil spill impossible to contain or clean up in these remote waters, today’s decision needlessly places in harm’s way the wildlife, cultures and communities that have long-called this region home,” said Ack.

“Instead of rushing to open public lands and waters in support of an outdated energy strategy, the administration should be investing in the development of our country’s abundant renewable energy resources while protecting our natural treasures,” Ack said.

Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program called the new policy “reckless” and said his group will work to stop it before it begins.

“Today’s announcement by the Trump administration’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to open nearly all waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to new oil drilling – coinciding with the impending proposal to roll back post-BP Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling safety protections – is the latest reckless decision by an increasingly out-of-touch and irresponsible president,” said Slocum.

“Expanding offshore oil drilling will not lower gasoline prices for consumers, and it will fail to make America energy independent, as U.S.-produced oil increasingly is exported out of the country. But expanding offshore drilling at the same time as eviscerating post-BP safety rules places workers and our coastal environments at risk.”

Slocum pointed out that “because oil company liability for accidents remains capped at an absurdly low amount, taxpayers are on the hook for spill-associated costs.”

“Producing more oil, and releasing greenhouse gas emissions when they are burned,” said Slocum, “at a time when markets are moving toward petroleum alternatives for transportation places our climate at risk.”

Some of the petroleum alternatives are electric and hybrid-electric cars, which are increasingly popular as prices drop, and cars that run on hydrogen fuel cells, also increasingly cheaper and more available.

“American energy production can be competitive while remaining safe and environmentally sound,” said Acting Director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, BOEM, Walter Cruickshank. “Public input is a crucial part of this process, and we hope to hear from industry groups, elected officials, other government agencies, concerned citizens and others as we move forward with developing the 2019-2024 National OCS Program.”

But Jayni Hein, policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, does not hold the same opinion.

“Opening up nearly all offshore areas for oil and gas leasing is a public land giveaway in which citizens and coastal communities bear the significant risks of a major oil spill, while receiving minimal benefits. In addition, tying up large portions of the Outer Continental Shelf for fossil fuel extraction prevents these areas from being used for offshore wind production and other, more strategic uses,” said Hein.

“This proposal is a terrible deal for taxpayers. It would flood the market with more offshore tracts for lease, all but ensuring that they sell for bargain prices with little to no competition,” Hein said. “In Interior’s last offshore lease sale, held this past summer, the vast majority of tracts had only one bidder.”

Inclusion of an offshore area in the Draft Proposed Program is not a final indication that it will be included in the approved program or offered in a lease sale, because many decision points still remain, Zinke emphasized.

By proposing to open these areas for consideration, the secretary wants to ensure that he will receive public input and analysis on all of the available OCS to better inform future decisions on the National OCS Program.

Prior to any individual lease sale in the future, the government promises to incorporate new scientific information and stakeholder feedback in its reviews to further refine the geographic scope of the lease areas.

Ken Berlin, president and CEO of The Climate Reality Project, said, “The only Americans who benefit from President Trump’s controversial proposal to open up vast areas of our coastal waters to drilling are fossil fuel CEOs. Vocal and immediate bipartisan opposition to this move shows that it’s completely at odds with what the American people want.”

“Increasing offshore drilling puts the health of our planet and the lives and livelihoods of millions who rely on healthy coastlines at risk. This risk is completely unnecessary at a time when the plunging costs of solar and wind show that we can affordably and reliably power our nation and economy without destroying our environment and climate,” said Berlin.

BOEM currently manages about 2,900 active OCS leases, covering almost 15.3 million acres – the vast majority in the Gulf of Mexico.

In fiscal year 2016, oil and gas leases on the OCS accounted for approximately 18 percent of domestic oil production and four percent of domestic natural gas production. This production generates billions of dollars in revenue for state and local governments and U.S. taxpayers, while supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2018. All rights reserved.