President Donald Trump started the process Friday of opening offshore oil and gas drilling areas, including the continental shelf off the Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia coasts. It is a move many fear will have a negative impact on the multibillion-dollar coastal tourism industry on the Delmarva Peninsula.
Atlantic waters have been off-limits to oil and natural gas exploration for decades, and the decision to keep them that way was recently upheld by the Obama administration.
“This deprives our country of potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in wealth,” Trump said Friday as he prepared to sign his order for the America First Off-Shore Energy Strategy. “I pledged to take action, and today I am keeping that promise.”
The strategy also reverses the Obama administration ban on new Arctic oil leases, Trump said.
The first step, Trump said, will be to open offshore areas to exploration.
That sparked controversy in coastal towns from Lewes to Ocean City, Md., because deep-sea exploration typically uses giant air guns to map the ocean depths and determine if and where oil and natural gas deposits might be found off the continental shelf.
The shelf is the drop-off along the coast and is about 60 miles offshore. It is a popular location for deep-sea fishing and one of the hotspots for anglers in Ocean City – “The White Marlin Capital of the World” – to hunt for the large sportfish each summer.
Every municipality along the Delaware-Maryland ocean coast opposed plans to allow seismic testing from New Jersey to Florida in a “Not Off Our Coast” Campaign in 2015-2016.
“We’re going to fight it. We’re not going to let it go,” said Joanne Cabry, who led the “Not Off Our Coast” campaign in Delaware.
The Obama administration, in 2016, reversed its 2015 plan to sell oil leases for drilling in the Middle and South Atlantic based on two key issues: Concerns voiced by residents, coastal mayors and municipalities, including several in Delaware and nearby Maryland, and the Pentagon’s worries that offshore drilling could impact operations at the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia.
The last time the sea floor off the Delaware-Maryland coast was mapped for oil and gas was more than 40 years ago. Pockets of natural gas were discovered, but there was no follow-up exploration. Many in the oil and gas industry argue that significant advances in drilling and extraction techniques make once-challenging locations more accessible. The findings were considered proprietary so the public never knew how much oil or gas was there.
The tourism economy on the Delmarva Peninsula brings in millions of dollars annually from beach-goers to fisherman and people who enjoy the outdoors. This weekend, hundreds of birders are on the peninsula for the annual Delmarva Birding Weekend.
“Today’s executive order is entirely unnecessary. The existing five-year plan finalized just months ago by the Obama Administration was the result of extensive public input and research,” said Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom Carper. “Moreover, the plan already makes more than 45 billion barrels of oil available. Reopening this plan that has undergone rigorous scrutiny by both experts and the communities that will be most impacted by increased drilling is without merit and stands in stark contrast to President Trump’s promises to listen to local input.”
Carper said he was concerned about the potential impact on coastal tourism.
“Expanding drilling in one part of the Atlantic could put our vibrant coastal communities and our entire coast at risk. Like we saw seven years ago with Deepwater Horizon, oil spills do not respect state boundaries. A spill anywhere along the East Coast could easily affect our pristine Delaware beaches and our coastal communities that rely on fishing, tourism and recreational activities to drive their local economies,” he said.
Carper was not alone in his concern.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., said “removing offshore drilling protections is incredibly shortsighted and dangerous. We take great pride in the quality of our beaches and our coastal communities and if President Trump’s administration does decide to allow offshore drilling, he will threaten not only our environment, but a major part of our economy.”
Rochester said the president should shift his focus to clean energy and alternative energy sources.
And Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said it doesn’t make sense to open up the continental shelf to exploration and drilling.
“Our beaches and coasts are some of our most valuable natural resources in Delaware. I am deeply concerned about fossil fuel development in the Atlantic, especially as it is against the wishes of many of the state and local governments in the region.”
Several environmental organizations, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the risk to the coastal natural resources, alone, outweigh the benefits.
“The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, and drilling offshore poses unjustifiable risks to the Bay, its living resources, the tourism economy, and the many jobs dependent on clean water,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President Kim Coble. “Offshore drilling creates a new pollution source, one capable of significant, even devastating environmental damage from drilling, transportation, storage, or refinement.”
Dewey Beach Mayor Dale Cooke said “the possibility of doing irreparable harm to the local ocean environment and fishing habitat could negate any possible benefit. After seeing the results of the blowout in the Gulf, it is simply too dangerous to allow drilling at this time in our Mid-Atlantic area.”
The Delaware Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation questioned the economic gamble.
“Do we really want to risk our tourism economy, which is the biggest source of jobs on the Delaware coast, for a few offshore oil drilling jobs that could doom our coastal towns if there is a spill?” said John Doerfler, chair of the Delaware chapter.
There are supporters in the region. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., thinks new energy sources are needed.
“I support American energy independence and exploring for energy resources wherever they are available,” he said.
The task of implementing the plan falls on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and a five-year lease program – the current one expires this year. Zinke expects to reconsider regulations on offshore energy, as well, including fast-track permitting for seismic testing to determine oil and natural gas potential off the coast.
“This order will cement our nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security for the benefit of the American people, while ensuring that any such activity is safe and environmentally responsible,” Zinke said. “This executive order, coupled with the president’s January 30th order on reducing regulations and the March 28th order on energy independence, puts us on track for American energy independence.”
Zinke said energy production supports millions of jobs and provides affordable power for businesses, citizens and for transportation.
“I understand people may be concerned about any environmental impact that development may have, and that’s a valid concern that the president and I share,” Zinke said.
During the review process, Zinke said, the administration “will find ways to improve our regulatory requirements that strengthen safety precautions. Good stewardship of our lands and waters and responsible offshore development are not mutually exclusive.”