An ongoing partial government shutdown poised to enter its fourth week has seemingly stalled President Donald Trump’s controversial efforts to open virtually all U.S. waters to oil and gas drilling.
Putting the brakes on a much-maligned offshore drilling plan has emerged as a self-defeating byproduct of the president’s shutdown over funding for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. While experts largely agree that the shutdown is unlikely to change the Trump administration’s plans to swiftly roll out its planned leasing program in U.S. waters, some say the shutdown has definitely slowed the effort and allowed drilling opponents to gain ground.
“What we know from previous experience with the Obama administration and even administrations before that… is that this process takes a while,” explained Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We would be expecting a proposed program in about March. But from where we are right now, the shutdown seems to be slowing them down.”
A year ago, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to open up nearly all federal waters to drilling including the entirety of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. An accompanying five-year leasing plan would auction off drilling rights in parts of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) from 2019 to 2024.
That plan met with heated controversy almost immediately. All governors on both the East and West Coast announced their opposition regardless of party affiliation with the exception of Maine’s then-Gov. Paul LePage (R).
Sen. Rick Scott (R), then governor of Florida, also sought and was granted an exemption from Zinke, to the consternation of other states like New Jersey; New Jersey has since sued over a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking more information about Florida’s exemption. The state has also introduced its own offshore drilling ban.
For months, the Trump administration plan sailed ahead despite the massive pushback and anger from coastal Democrats and Republicans alike. But the shutdown has hit the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) hard, along with many other U.S. agencies, making it challenging to ascertain the status of the OCS plans.
According to the agency’s shutdown contingency plan, 84 employees are expected to be on-hand to conduct essential functions, with 76 of those specified for work with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). Their work largely deals with pre-existing permitting operations, like the kind ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico.
A request for comment on the status of the five-year leasing plan from BOEM was met with an automated response indicating that employees are not responding to email inquiries during the shutdown.
Multiple organizations monitoring the OCS developments, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), indicated to ThinkProgress that they believed with so many employees furloughed, work had largely stopped at BOEM.
“They’re not going to be able to move this as fast as they want,” said Weaver. “People who need to be doing the analysis are not working right now.”
But that doesn’t mean advocates are necessarily breathing a sigh of relief. Drilling opponents largely agree that, short of the shutdown dragging on for months, it is unlikely to hinder the Trump administration’s eagerness to open up U.S. waters. Many said that the plan was anticipated prior to the shutdown and that only last-minute issues like the controversial exemption for Florida were left to address.
That means when the shutdown ends, a plan is likely coming.
“When the shutdown began, our expectation was that BOEM could drop its offshore drilling plan any day—one that would threaten all Americans, not just coastal residents,” said Alexandra Adams, legislative director for NRDC’s nature program, in an email to ThinkProgress. “We will continue to vigorously oppose that plan.”
Still, opponents are seizing on the lull. Earlier this week, state legislators across the country announced a slew of new bills in coastal states targeting offshore drilling efforts. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, and Rhode Island rolled out legislation targeting drilling infrastructure and in some cases seeking an outright ban on the practice.
They were joined by help at the national level, as seven House Democrats unveiled their own series of bills seeking to crack down on offshore drilling. One bill, introduced by newly-elected South Carolina Democrat Joe Cunningham, would ban the practice in the Atlantic and parts of the Gulf of Mexico where drilling is already taking place.
Offshore drilling opponents say the Trump administration should take heed of those movements. “What they’re talking about doing, the largest opening of U.S. waters to oil and gas in U.S. history… we’re talking about something that should be undergoing a massive environmental review,” said Weaver.
Arguing that the “drumbeat of opposition” is only likely to grow, she pointed specifically to concerns in Southern states, where bipartisan anger over drilling has steadily mounted.
“In the Southeast, what people have wanted all along is for Trump to simply listen to the coast,” Weaver said. “These are the folks who are impacted and who have very clearly from day one said, ‘not on our coast, we don’t want it here.’”