WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump on Friday ordered a review of Obama-era protections on offshore drilling, with environmental groups bracing for the administration to eventually loosen the restrictions its predecessor put in place.
The order Trump signed on Friday directs Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to review the five year plan for offshore drilling that President Barack Obama enacted just days after the 2016 presidential election. That plan allowed for limited offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Alaska, but put off limits any drilling operations in the Arctic and in parts of the Atlantic.
Zinke will also review current regulations and permit requirements for offshore drilling and seismic research. The order also prevents Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross from designating or expanding current marine monuments and sanctuaries while also reviewing those that were expanded or created in the last 10 years.
“This order will cement our nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security for the benefit of the American people without removing any of the stringent environmental safeguards that are currently in place,” Zinke said in a call with reporters on Thursday.
Zinke repeatedly cast the decision to review offshore drilling plans as critical to national security and the economy, saying it will provide access to reliable energy produced in the United States instead of in a foreign country.
The Trump order backs off the Obama decision to put off limits to drilling parts of the Arctic drilling, though it does not immediately increase the number of leases available for companies to tap into oil and natural gas off the coast. But Trump’s talk during the campaign of unleashing oil reserves in the United States leads environmental groups to believe that those changes are coming once Zinke’s review is complete.
When signing the order on Friday Trump said “we’re opening” the Arctic up.
“We assume that whatever it is, it’s going to open up the coasts off the Atlantic and other areas,” said Deborah Murray, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Once a decision is reached, any changes to the Obama five year plan would have to go to a public comment period and figures to face a bevy of legal challenges, especially given recent public opposition to drilling efforts from both environmentalists and the communities that would have the rigs put up just off their shores.
Trump is within his authority to order a review of the five year plan at any time, but any action beyond that could raise legal questions, Murray said.
Opposition to expanded offshore drilling operations goes far beyond the potential environmental impacts, as environmentalists and those in the industry also warn that more drilling could cause safety concerns.
“There are a lot of people in the environmental sector and also in the energy sector as well who are very cautious and skeptical that developing those arctic waters is a wise move because those areas are so remote and waters are so treacherous that its really, really risky to try and drill there,” said Brian La Shier, an energy and climate policy associate with the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “And even if projects do go forward there the chance of having an accident or some sort of disaster happening causes a lot of concern because of the remoteness.”
Zinke addressed these concerns head-on, promising to keep in place safety and environmental protects, which he said are among the strongest in the world, even as Trump has moved to reduce other Obama-era environmental regulations in other areas.
“I understand that some of you will have concerns about the environmental impact that development may have and that’s a valid concern and it’s a concern that the president and I both share,” Zinke said. “The truth is we can expect during the review process that we will find ways to look at our regulatory requirements that strengthen our safety and environmental policies.”