A Trump Administration plan to open federal waters to new offshore oil drilling is on hold following a major legal setback. The controversial plan to open nearly 90 federal waters to the oil industry has faced a constant barrage of opposition from coastal states and communities since its inception, including numerous legal challenges.
In April, U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that President Donald Trump exceeded his authority when he issued a 2017 executive order that reopened large parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in Alaska to offshore oil leasing, areas that were placed off limits to the oil industry during the Obama era because of numerous serious environmental concerns.
The federal court ruling made in Alaska blocks oil development in a 128-million-acre area of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, but the case has been watched closely by local activists because it also impacts the Trump Administration’s plan to open other areas, including the Coast of California, to drilling.
The Trump Administration is expected to appeal the decision, but the ruling is seen as a major blow to the offshore drilling plan. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who has been criticized for his ties to the energy industry, has indicated that his agency has put the plan on hold while his agency seeks to appeal the case.
The lawsuit, brought by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and EarthJustice on behalf of a large coalition of Indigenous and environmental groups, is being hailed as a major victory by conservationists.
“President Trump’s wildly unpopular and risky offshore drilling plan needs to be more than sidelined,” stated Alexandra Adams, legislative director for the Nature Program at the NRDC. “It should be deep-sixed permanently.”
That’s a view shared by many in Washington. The lawsuit isn’t the only obstacle in the Trump Administration’s path. On May 3, California’s U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris introduced the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, which would permanently prohibit the conduct of offshore drilling on the outer Continental Shelf off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington.
The act is co-sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Gary Peters (D-MI).
“Offshore drilling is a direct threat to the health of our coasts and to the economic vitality of our coastal communities across California and the nation,” Harris declared. “This administration has made clear their intention to roll back key environmental protections that have been in place for decades, and we must fight back to protect our natural resources and combat the climate crisis.”
“While the Trump administration has already admitted its offshore drilling plan is being delayed by legal setbacks, we can’t risk leaving our oceans unprotected if it prevails,” Feinstein wrote.
Companion legislation was introduced by California Congressman Jared Huffman in the House of Representatives.
A second bill, introduced by New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, would ban new offshore oil drilling off the East Coast. It’s the second time Menendez has proposed the Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism (COAST) Anti-Drilling Act. An earlier attempt in 2007 died in a previous Congress. This effort has the support of Cory Booker (D-NJ), Edward Markey (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chris Coons (D-DE), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
All over the country, coastal communities are passing their own resolutions opposing offshore drilling. In February, the Oxnard City Council became the 85th West Coast community to approve a resolution opposing new fossil fuel drilling off the California coast and fracking in existing offshore oil and gas wells. The resolution passed on a 6 to 1 vote in a town that was built on oil interests. Malibu, Los Angeles County, and Ventura have already signed the resolution.
No federal oil drilling leases have been issued for the California coast since 1984, and Californians have repeatedly rejected new offshore oil drilling proposals for nearly 50 years, following the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara that was a major flash point for the nationwide environmental movement.
Voters continue to overwhelmingly oppose new offshore drilling in the state, but in the 1960s and ’70s there were major plans to install oil platforms off Malibu and Santa Monica, with three documented leases offshore from Topanga State Beach.
While the Trump Administration’s offshore oil drilling plans have hit a snag, Bernhardt’s Interior Department continues to weaken industry regulations. Most recently, the agency announced a plan to lift restrictions put in place following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and released four million barrels of oil into the ocean.
The fight over offshore oil continues to rage.