President Donald Trump, announcing a new five-year oil and gas leasing program that could include the Atlantic Ocean, singled out the energy executives in the audience for a round of applause.
“It’s wonderful to be here with so many pioneers and visionaries from America’s energy industry — great industry. I want to thank the leaders of our great energy companies for joining us today and for supporting our efforts to bring true wealth and prosperity to our people,” the president said. “Come on, give yourself a hand. ... You deserve it. You’ve gone through eight years of hell.”
Thursday’s event, called “Unleashing American Energy,” was part of Trump’s “Energy Week” and marked the latest steps on a road that opponents fear could lead to drilling rigs off the coast of Virginia and other Atlantic states.
“The truth is we have near limitless supplies of energy in our country,” said Trump, who talked up “energy dominance” and whose administration has broken sharply with that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, on fossil fuel and climate policy.
In May, the Department of the Interior reversed a decision by the Obama administration that ordered the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to deny applications from companies seeking permission to conduct seismic surveying for oil and gas reserves in the Atlantic.
The department said the testing would gather crucial, updated information on oil and gas resources and “seafloor hazards” as well as “potential sand and gravel resources for beach replenishment” and “potential archeological resources.”
“We are really in the driving seat, and we don’t want other countries to take away our sovereignty and tell us what to do and how to do it,” Trump said Thursday. “This vast energy wealth does not belong to the government, it belongs to the people of the United States of America.”
But what about the people who don’t want it drilled?
“It’s all hands on deck,” said Laura Wood Habr, a Virginia Beach restaurant owner and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, which represents thousands of East Coast businesses. “By remaining silent, you’re giving permission to do it. So we need everyone in an elected position to say, ‘We don’t want this.’ ”
Habr’s organization has a map of the U.S. Atlantic coast that shows scores of local governments from Islamorada, Fla., to Red Bank, N.J., that have adopted resolutions opposing Atlantic drilling and seismic surveys.
The Southern Environmental Law Center says more than 120 coastal cities and towns and hundreds of businesses, trade groups and tourism associations oppose drilling and seismic testing.
Virginia Beach joined that group recently, with the City Council adopting a resolution opposing seismic testing and oil and gas exploration “off of the city’s pristine coastline” and reversing a stance the council adopted in 2010, when it supported exploration and royalty payments to the states.
“We haven’t found anyone to tell us why it’s a good idea and what the benefit is to us,” Habr said.
And on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 100 U.S. representatives, including four Virginia Democrats, urged Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke not to issue permits for seismic surveying.
“Opening the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling jeopardizes our coastal businesses, fishing communities, tourism and our national security,” they wrote. “It harms our coastal economies in the near term and opens the door to even greater risks from offshore oil and gas development down the road.”
Several Virginia Republican members of Congress have pushed legislation to make it easier to drill off Virginia’s coast, The Washington Post has reported.
Have oil and gas producers in the U.S., which led the world in petroleum production in 2016, gone through “eight years of hell”?
“I certainly would not use those words,” said Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, part of the American Petroleum Institute. “I’m not going to comment on his specific statement. ... We are a technology-driven industry. We are innovating. We are increasing production. ... Even bad policies haven’t been able to impede the American energy renaissance.”
Morin pointed to renewable fuel standards, limits on offshore lease sales that made about 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf unavailable for oil and gas exploration, and emissions regulations, among others, as examples.
Offshore oil and gas exploration could bring a big boost to the Hampton Roads area and can be done safely, Morin said, thanks to lessons the industry has learned since the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering a leak that went uncapped for 87 days and totaled 4 million barrels before it was finally sealed.
Morin cited the Center for Offshore Safety in Houston, an industry-sponsored group focused on developing and adopting standards for offshore drilling, and the Marine Well Containment Co., founded by four large oil companies to respond to a well leak several thousand feet below the surface.
“We think we won’t see anything like the Deepwater Horizon again,” he said.
On Monday, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will publish in the Federal Register a request for information and comments from state and local governments as well as the general public, industry, environmental groups and others on the proposed leasing plan.
In a news release Friday, Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the SELC, called on governors to “be champions for the coastal communities they were elected to serve and make clear that offshore drilling has no place off our coast.”
The SELC says the Trump administration has already issued draft “incidental take” authorizations, exemptions for ocean activity that affects marine mammals and other ocean life.
“This move is a precursor for companies to conduct seismic blasting to test for offshore oil and gas through dynamite-like blasts every 10 seconds for weeks on end. Even before drilling is underway, seismic blasting would causes significant harm to the commercial fishing industry and endangered whales in the Atlantic Ocean,” the SELC said in a statement.
The Interior Department says “seismic surveys are not expected to have significant impacts on marine mammal populations or the environment given the use of advanced technology and other safeguards that are currently required.”
Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates are split on the issue. Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, a Democrat, opposes offshore drilling. GOP nominee Ed Gillespie’s campaign has said he supports offshore drilling as long as it is conducted in an environmentally responsible manner.
A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has been a past booster for oil and gas drilling, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.