As Trump administration looms, advocates seek Atlantic drilling ban

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, coastal advocates and businesses are wasting no time in their quest for a permanent ban on offshore drilling along the Eastern Seaboard.

Members of a newly formed alliance representing more than 12,000 businesses along the Atlantic Coast will travel to the District of Columbia on Monday to urge President Obama to use his authority to stop new ocean oil and gas leases before he leaves office.

The trip – one tactic in an escalating campaign to convince Obama to bar all future oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic – was planned weeks ago, when Hillary Clinton was widely expected to win.

But the election of Trump, who supports increased oil and gas development, over Clinton, who mostly doesn’t, has raised the stakes for a tourism and fishing industry worried about drilling’s damage to the coastal economy.

“The election results make it even more important that President Obama protect the Atlantic Coast…not just for the next several years, but forever,” said Frank Knapp, head of the new business alliance and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

After the Obama administration proposed allowing oil and gas leases off the coast from Virginia to Georgia last January, hundreds of businesses along the southern coast, over 100 local governments and other elected officials registered opposition.

As a result, the administration walked back its plans, announcing in March it would prevent oil and gas leases in the Atlantic until at least 2022.

But officials with the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management haven’t yet rejected pending permits for seismic testing – the drilling exploration process many scientists say can harm and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine life.

Advocates say a permanent drilling ban would both protect marine mammals from seismic testing and safeguard against future pro-drilling administrations like Trump’s, long after the five-year leasing plan expires.

“Without [Obama] finishing the job of banning offshore drilling, the devastation to our vibrant coastal economies of tourism, commercial fishing and recreation will begin very shortly,” said Knapp. “Atlantic Coast businesses, local governments and residents are calling on him to act before it is too late.”

The chance for lasting protection

The president could withdraw the Atlantic under consideration for drilling indefinitely under an obscure section of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Act, which he’s already applied once to safeguard Bristol Bay and parts of the Arctic Ocean.

Only three other presidents have used the provision: Dwight Eisenhower, who in 1960 safeguarded an area off Key Largo in Florida, and George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who both protected parts the North Atlantic and parts of Florida temporarily.

Despite this shallow precedent, Bloomberg News reported in May that it would be difficult – and perhaps impossible – for future presidents to reverse a drilling ban instituted under this part of the law.

‘High risk and no reward’

Because the oil and gas market is volatile, and no recent data exists about oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic, estimates of economic benefits oil and gas development are speculative.

In 2013, the offshore energy industry promised hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in economic gain for the U.S. as a whole if drilling were allowed in the entire Atlantic Ocean.

These benefit estimates weren’t confined to the southern Atlantic coastal states, however, and critics contend the numbers were based on unrealistically high projections about both production and the price of oil.

A December report commissioned by the Southern Environmental Law Center found that Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia already had more jobs in the ocean economy in 2012 than those promised by the oil industry 20 years from now.

Business leaders such as Tom Kies, executive director of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce in Morehead City, North Carolina, say taking a position against drilling was an easy decision.

“We are a tourism-based economy here, and that includes commercial and recreational fishing,” Kies said. “We are very concerned about the ecology here and anything that might upset it. The amount of jobs we would see in this market would be minimal at best, and the economic risk far outweighs any small benefit you might see. It’s high risk and no reward.”

Coastal business leaders and advocates say this economic calculus won’t change in the future.

“Harming the existing vibrant coastal tourism economy with offshore testing and drilling is incompatible with our Atlantic coast economy,” said Knapp of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t want it, regardless of the price of oil, regardless of how much the petroleum industry can profit.”

“North Carolinians know drilling will never be the answer,” said Zachary Keith, lead organizer with the North Carolina Sierra Club. “That’s why we need permanent protection for the East Coast.”

Bolstering a threatened climate legacy

While coastal businesses are pressing their case with the Obama administration using a local argument about the economy, national environmental groups are leading with the global threat of climate change.

By all accounts, much of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, accomplished through rulemaking and executive order, faces reversal, delay, or severe weakening under President-elect Trump. But advocates say a permanent ban on drilling could be a lasting way for Obama to bolster his climate legacy.

A study from the International Panel on Climate Change shows that a two-degree rise in temperature – the benchmark scientists say is necessary to avoid dangerous climate impacts – would require 80 percent of the world’s known fossil-fuel reserves to stay in the ground.

Because the oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic Ocean are not part of these proven reserves, it will be essential for meeting the world’s carbon budget for those deposits to remain beneath the seafloor, said Franz Matzner, director of the Beyond Oil Initiative for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Drilling our last pristine coasts and disrupting existing local economies means we’re giving up on clean energy and meeting our climate goals,” Matzner said.

Following a contentious election season, advocates say banning offshore drilling is one issue that brings people and divergent constituencies together, and polls well with the public.

“This is something that everyone can agree on,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director with Oceana. “Particularly right now with all the divisiveness, this is an issue that transcends partisanship.”

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