Trump offshore drilling plan may be dead in the water, but there are better ways to lead on energy

President Trump’s effort to expand offshore oil and gas exploration has stalled, and may be dead in the water. The newest obstacle is an April ruling in Alaska’s U.S. District Court that blocked Trump’s order to lift a ban on energy leasing in Arctic waters.

Trump’s 2018 order opening nearly all U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling is now in limbo, and may be significantly revised. If Trump is voted out in 2020, the plan won’t survive. And even if he is reelected, there are logical arguments for shelving it.

In my view, this proposal has always been more political than practical. What’s more, there is plenty of accessible oil and gas on land – as well as renewable energy resources that would do much more to advance Trump’s “energy dominance” doctrine.

Draft plan for expanded offshore oil and gas leasing, released by the Interior Department on Jan. 4, 2018. BOEM

Offshore drilling is a political loser

Unlike the boom in production on land, which is popular in energy-rich states, expanding offshore leasing and drilling has met almost unbroken resistance. Six states have passed legislation in the past year opposing it. In Florida, where coastal tourism is one of the largest industries, anger at the plan crosses partisan lines.

The only state where there is strong support for offshore drilling is Alaska, which is highly dependent on oil and gas revenue. Here, though, there has been much recent drilling success onshore and in adjacent state waters.

Republicans fear losing voters in coastal states over this issue in 2020. Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of adults living within 25 miles of a coast oppose offshore leasing. Few Americans have forgotten the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its impacts on tourism, fishing and other coastal industries.

[embedded content] U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-SC, sets off an air horn in a March 7, 2019 hearing to demonstrate how offshore seismic surveys for oil and gas could affect marine mammals.

Uncertain gains

Why would Trump even consider such an unpopular move? One driver may be his determination to erase the environmental legacy of his predecessor, President Obama.

In December 2016, invoking a provision of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, Obama banned offshore drilling in large areas of the Arctic and along the Atlantic coast. Trump sought to kill the ban using an executive order – an approach that reflects his broader effort to extend the limits of presidential power. But Alaska’s District Court ruled that only Congress can reverse Obama’s action.

Nonetheless, the Interior Department is still processing applications to conduct seismic surveys for oil and gas deposits off the Atlantic coast. And the White House is moving to undo new drilling safety requirements adopted in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

How much would the oil industry gain from more access to federal waters? Trade groups welcomed Trump’s order, but their statements aren’t especially convincing – mainly because estimates of potential offshore reserves in the contested areas pale compared to the central and western Gulf of Mexico, where energy companies have been drilling since the late 1930s.

Lower oil prices tend to depress spending on future exploration, as reflected in the number of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. EIA

The action is on land

More to the point, an onshore oil and gas boom is underway, centered in several major provinces of the lower 48 states. These areas offer far more potential with much lower drilling costs than the offshore.