SELC cheers “indefinite delay” in drilling plan

Rep. Joe Cunningham vows to fight seismic blasting and offshore drilling at a December rally in Charleston. (© Arielle Simmons)

After Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced Thursday that the Trump administration was indefinitely delaying its push to open the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling, elected officials and communities in coastal states celebrated, and seized the opportunity to permanently sideline unwanted drilling.

Leading officials from both parties quickly weighed in to cheer the news, including the governors of Virginia and South Carolina, and key East Coast Congressional representatives. 

“Today’s announcement is great news,” South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said in a statement Thursday. “South Carolinians can remain confident that we will continue our efforts to protect our pristine coastline and invaluable tourism industry from the destructive threats of seismic testing and offshore drilling.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pushed back against a Trump administration proposal to put less weight on the wishes of coastal states while U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham urged fellow representatives to support his legislation to ban all drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

“This decision is the result of constant pressure from coastal communities, environmental groups and elected officials who made it abundantly clear that offshore oil and gas drilling is dangerous, unwanted and a threat to our economy and way of life,” Cunningham told the Charleston Post and Courier.

Virginia Congressman Don McEachin urged Bernhardt to permanently take Virginia out of consideration for offshore drilling.

The flurry of news surrounding Bernhardt’s statements was a surprising, but welcome turn. Bernhardt told the Wall Street Journal it made sense to delay drilling decisions while a case in Alaska was still being decided, but he also recognized the intense opposition from coastal states. A judge there said a Trump executive order could not re-open areas previously closed to drilling. Congress would need to be involved, the judge ruled. 

However, SELC’s Director of Federal Affairs Nat Mund noted an increasing number of federal leaders from both parties are against offshore drilling in the Atlantic, presenting an obstacle for the administration. 

“Secretary Bernhardt may be closely aligned with the oil industry, but he also recognizes the political reality of such an unpopular proposal,” Mund said. “We can only hope that this move represents a return to rationality and a genuine listening to the bipartisan voices that have asked the administration to stop this.”

More than 230 East Coast cities, towns and counties have passed resolutions against drilling in the Atlantic Ocean. Another 30 on Florida’s Gulf Coast are opposed to drilling there.

All 14 East Coast governors are opposed to drilling off their coasts, something Bernhardt noted in the interview.

It wasn’t clear from Bernhard’s comments if the reversal represented a change in the administration’s position on the Atlantic.

“I certainly hope that ‘indefinitely delayed’ is Washington-speak for ‘never,’” said Sierra Weaver, an SELC senior attorney who heads the group’s drilling work. 

It is unclear how the leasing plan delay will impact the Trump administration’s approval of permits for companies to start seismic surveys of the Atlantic’s sea floor. The permits allow the boats to bombard the ocean with airgun blasts for weeks or months at a time. The blasts are used to look for potential fuel deposits, but are so loud they can injure dolphins, whales and other sea life.

SELC and other conservation organizations have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Charleston, SC, to prevent the seismic blasting, arguing the permits violate federal law. Ten states and several towns and small businesses have joined this litigation, highlighting the same bipartisan opposition to seismic blasting.

“Since drilling is now delayed indefinitely, there is no need to move forward with seismic blasting,” said SELC Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker, who is working on the legal challenge. “The prior administration denied seismic permits after deciding not to drill in the South Atlantic; this administration should do the same, and spare our marine resources this unnecessary harm.” 

I certainly hope that ‘indefinitely delayed’ is Washington-speak for ‘never.'”