February 1, 2018
Last month, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that he was opening nearly all offshore waters to oil and gas drilling, reversing a ban imposed by Barack Obama near the end of his presidency in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. This is part of a distinctive pattern in the Trump administration, which has shown remarkable fealty to the oil and gas sectors while taking every opportunity to antagonize environmental groups.
The governors of several coastal states immediately objected, and Zinke seemed sympathetic to one of them: Trump ally Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, who is thinking of running for U.S. Senate. After Zinke announced that Florida would be exempted from the drilling plan, ostensibly because the state’s coastal currents are different and the state is so tourism-reliant, other governors—including Roy Cooper of North Carolina—began asking for the same courtesy. (While Zinke told Scott Florida was off the table, he apparently didn’t tell the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is analyzing the plan, to take Florida out.)
But, as Zinke explained to CNN a week ago,“Not every state has all the [Congress] members against it and the geology is different, the currents are different, and so looking at it, we're going to take the process, go through it, meet with every governor personally.”
Today, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein joined attorneys general in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Oregon (disclosure: Ellen Rosenblum, Oregon’s AG, is married to INDY owner Richard Meeker), and Virginia in asking Zinke to reconsider.
In a twelve-page letter to Zinke, they write: “You pledged that, under your leadership, the Department of the Interior would be a ‘collaborative department’ that would “solve problems rather than create them.’ But the Draft Proposed Program fails to live up to those promises. Instead, it would create multiple problems for nearly everyone who participates in or benefits from our states’ coastal and maritime economies. At a minimum, three million jobs across America depend on the ocean and coastal economy, which generated more than $350 billion in gross domestic product in 2014 alone. Your proposal threatens these jobs and the economic prosperity of our states. It also endangers the unique ecologies of our shores and state ocean waters.”
They continue: “If the Draft Proposed Program is not terminated, we intend to submit, on or before March 9, 2018, formal comments. Among other things, our comments will detail the Draft Proposed Program’s legal insufficiencies and the many harms that it would inflict on our states.”
Those harms include the potential damage to coastal economies that could occur should there be an incident, a la Deepwater Horizon. In North Carolina, the letter points out, the “coastal tourism industry creates 30,000 jobs and $3 billion in annual revenue. Commercial and recreational fishing support an estimated additional 22,500 jobs and $787 million in revenue each year. Visitors to the Tar Heel coast generated an estimated $650 million in wages and tips.
“As Congress has recognized, North Carolina’s Outer Banks are ‘an area of exceptional environmental fragility.’ Endangered and threatened species are found throughout the state’s coastal waters. North Carolina has 326 miles of ocean beaches and the second-largest estuarine complex in the continental United States, much of it highly sensitive even to comparatively small environmental disruptions. For example, the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary, because of its slow rate of water exchange, is especially susceptible to damage from even small leaks and spills. This estuary covers over 3,000 square miles of open water.”
“Thousands of North Carolinians and 30 coastal communities have voiced their opposition to drilling off North Carolina’s shores,” Stein said in a release. “I will do everything I can, including taking legal action, if necessary, to fight on behalf of our people, economy, and natural resources.”
Earlier this week, he and other attorneys general also asked the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement not to weaken drilling-safety regulations.