Things have a tendency to change quickly in the effort to pursue Trump administration policy on offshore drilling. On Thursday, Green Scene of Coastal Georgia hosted a small talk by the Glynn Environmental Coalition and One Hundred Miles on what’s going on and what the stakes are regarding drilling off the Georgia coast.
There are steps to the process, the first of which is done — five companies obtained incidental harassment authorizations that allow them to unintentionally “harass, hunt, capture or kill” or attempt to do the same to what’s considered by the federal government small numbers of marine mammals.
The second step is to obtain authorization to conduct seismic testing. One concern is a 2017 study indicated seismic airgun operations lead to the deterioration of zooplankton populations, which causes a problematic ripple effect upward through the food chain.
“But some of the biggest impacts that we’re really concerned about are to the North Atlantic right whale,” Alice Keyes, One Hundred Miles vice president for coastal conservation, said at the event held at Ocean Lodge on St. Simons Island. “Whales — we always have a heart for whales — and you just can’t get around the fact that these gentle beast are threatened by seismic testing. There are only about 400 individuals that are remaining on the planet today, and they come to the Georgia coast to have their babies.”
She said 26 scientists sent a letter to President Barack Obama during his administration saying that opening up the Atlantic Coast to seismic testing could be the tipping point for North Atlantic right whales. Of course, since then, there’s been an unusual mortality event of at least 20 whales, and three consecutive disastrous calving seasons, making the situation more dire.
Keyes also said there’s a lot that goes into offshore drilling infrastructure and operations.
“Helicopters back and forth, boats back and forth, tunnels and pipelines for bringing the oil onshore,” Keyes said. “And then, if it goes poorly, you have a situation like we had in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.”
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill lasted nearly five months, releasing more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf and affected coastlines from its location off Louisiana all the way to near Tampa, Fla.
“Granted, they were drilling in real deep water, but it was just an exploration well,” Keyes said. “It wasn’t even producing oil — they were just exploring.”
The argument from offshore energy exploration advocates, that opening up the Atlantic Coast for drilling would be beneficial economically, hasn’t won over the governors of those states, however, who in a rare bipartisan manner each publicly stated opposition to those plans, frequently mentioning a preference to protect fishing and tourism industries.
That’s where the Interior Department comes in, which regulates such matters. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the Wall Street Journal in late April that federal offshore energy exploration plans were indefinitely suspended after a federal judge in Alaska ruled against the Trump administration, saying those plans — issuing from Executive Order 13795 — were illegal according to Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
That has since changed. Tuesday, he told members of Congress that the department is moving ahead with the process of approving seismic testing applications and its five-year offshore plan. According to The Hill, he said state issues would be of top concern.
“I’m not aware of a single lease that was ever developed over the opposition of a state,” Bernhardt said.
Taking him at his word, that would put the Atlantic Coast out of consideration, but looking at what led to this point, it’s not a reasonable conclusion. In an interview Thursday with the Washington Post, Bernhardt said “he could not predict when the offshore leasing plan would be finalized.”
But even what Bernhardt’s told news media is in question thanks to what Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in a declaration Thursday in the federal lawsuit that seeks to prevent seismic airgun testing off the Atlantic Coast. One Hundred Miles is a party to that lawsuit.
Cruickshank states, “Neither the Department of the Interior nor the secretary of the Interior have made any announcement that the department ‘may wait until the resolution of any potential appeal from an order issued by Judge Gleason of the District of Alaska….
“The department is simply evaluating all of its options in light of the recent court decision to determine the best pathway to accomplish the mission entrusted to it by the president.”
And to present another influence on this debate, the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 has Democrats looking at the Obama administration’s record in a new way.
With climate change and environmental policy playing a much larger role in American politics in general, and Democratic politics in particular, the Biden campaign’s announcement Friday of seeking a “middle ground” in environmental policy quickly received push-back.
Biden’s plan, as much as it’s presently known, would keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement, set emissions and energy efficiency standards at Obama administration levels, and continue to rely on fossil fuels.
Federal courts ruled against federal approvals of two gas drilling plans in western Colorado in March and against five drilling permits issued in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin on Monday. As Bernhardt pointed out in his Washington Post interview, the authorizations for those efforts came under the Obama administration.