President Donald Trump used the seventh anniversary of the BP oil disaster last month to set the stage for new and dangerous drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He signed an executive order directing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review an Obama administration plan that limited drilling in areas of the Arctic and southeast Atlantic between 2017 and 2022. This is a serious setback for the environment, public safety and energy policy.
Trump's order could narrow federal protections against drilling on the Alaskan and Atlantic coasts, and open the door to new leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. He instructed Interior officials to consider revising the current schedule of oil and gas lease sales in the outer continental shelf with an eye toward maximizing production activity in the Alaska area, the southern and mid Atlantic and the western and central gulf. He also ordered the fast-tracking of permitting to help determine the amount of offshore resources available, and he called for a review of several safety rules put into place after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. This all takes regulatory and energy policy in the wrong direction.
While the eastern gulf is still protected by a 2006 congressional agreement that bars drilling within 125 miles of the Panhandle and 230 miles of Tampa Bay, drilling in the central gulf could still endanger Florida. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has filed legislation to block Trump from opening up any new offshore areas for drilling until at least 2022. He also has filed legislation to extend the existing ban in the eastern gulf for an additional five years, to 2027. A Pentagon official also has noted the importance the drilling ban in the eastern gulf as a means to accommodate military training in the area.
Zinke's review could take years. Still, any move to open up new areas for offshore drilling sends the wrong message to the industry. It could sap investment in renewables if companies see offshore leases as a cheap hedge for supply over the long term. The move also sends a signal that this administration will not act as a strong manager of sea and energy resources on federal land.
Trump also ordered a review of the Well Control Rule, which Obama put in place last year. The rule aims to improve standards for blowout preventers, the last line of defense for undersea gas wells at risk of exploding. In the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the blowout preventer failed, leading to a series of reforms imposed by the Obama administration that targeted both the equipment and training involved in offshore rigs. Trump ordered Zinke to review whether the rule was necessary.
These are backward steps for a nation and an industry that still are learning the impacts from the worst spill in U.S. history. Congress should not be quick to authorize new offshore drilling, and it certainly should ensure the hard-won safety reforms are not sacrificed in the process.