Gov.-elect Ralph Northam wants Virginia to get the same consideration as Florida, which the U.S. Interior Department this week cut out of its contentious draft plans to dramatically expand oil and gas drilling in American waters.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday, Northam requested Virginia’s exclusion from the 2019-2024 draft proposed offshore oil and gas leasing program, which was released Jan. 4 and put nearly all of the United States’ coastal waters on the table for drilling.
On Tuesday, Zinke said he was taking Florida out of the mix, saying he supported Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s contention that “Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” Governors and business groups up and down the Atlantic Coast, including outgoing Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, are similarly opposed to seismic surveying and drilling.
“I grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and can tell you firsthand that the Chesapeake Bay and the commonwealth’s ocean and coastal resources are every bit as ecologically and economically valuable as those of Florida, a state that was recently exempted from the leasing plan,” Northam said. “I am encouraged by the decision to exempt Florida from the plan and respectfully ask that the same exemption be made for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Northam also urged the department to hold public meetings on the proposed program in Hampton Roads and on the Eastern Shore instead of the single meeting scheduled in Richmond next week. The public comment period on the program is scheduled to end March 9. The proposed final program is not expected to be out until next year, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says.
Zinke’s decision to remove Florida from the plan was criticized as both partisan and deeply flawed from a procedural standpoint.
On Wednesday, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, blasted Zinke’s decision as a political favor and perhaps a nod to President Donald Trump’s so-called “winter White House,” the Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Palm Beach.
“Local voices in Virginia have also spoken up. This would hurt our coastal economies and threaten our naval operations in Norfolk,” Kaine said in a tweet. “If it’s truly about ‘local voice’ — not just protecting President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago — then make this same commitment for Virginia.”
Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, which represents 41,000 businesses and hundreds of thousands of commercial fishing families in Atlantic states, said in a statement that “every one of these states deserves Mr. Zinke reaching the same conclusion to continue the ban on offshore drilling on their Outer Continental Shelf.”
“While the other Atlantic Coast states don’t have a Mar-a-Lago to protect and some don’t have Republican governors to plead their case, they do have thousands of businesses that depend on a healthy ocean for their success,” Knapp said. “Offshore drilling for oil is just as incompatible with the local economies of the rest of the Atlantic Coast states as it is with Florida’s economy.”
Alex Hinson, a spokesman for the Interior Department, said creating the five-year program is “a very open and public process that centers around a series of public comment periods and revisions to the proposed plan.”
The draft plan released earlier this month had proposed nine lease sales in the Atlantic region, three each for the mid- and south-Atlantic and one for the Straits of Florida. There have been no sales in the Atlantic since 1983, and there are no existing leases.
“The secretary has said since day one that he is interested in hearing the local voice. Governor Scott requested a meeting the day the plan was released and the secretary granted that meeting request,” Hinson said.
Scott, he added, was the only governor to request a meeting until Wednesday.
“The secretary intends to meet with or talk with any governor who submits a request,” Hinson said.
Hinson did not respond to a question about why the comments governors have already submitted opposing drilling in waters off their states, as McAuliffe has done, did not appear to carry the same weight as Zinke’s in-person meeting with Scott.
The oil industry, which had applauded the draft leasing plan as a ticket to increased employment and economic growth and lower energy costs, also opposed Zinke’s move.
“Secretary Zinke’s announcement is premature,” said Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, part of the American Petroleum Institute. “The administration should follow the legislated process for approving new lease areas before making decisions that would undermine our nation’s energy security.”
Morin said offshore drilling has “coexisted successfully with industries like commercial and recreational fishing and tourism for decades” and added that “our industry and the U.S. Department of Defense work together to ensure all offshore operations take place without any impact to existing or future military activities.”
The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the biggest spill in the history of marine oil-drilling operations, killed 11 workers, fouled beaches all along the Gulf of Mexico and cost the Gulf fishing industry hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in losses in just the first year of the spill.
Since then, Morin says, the industry has created or strengthened 100 standards “to ensure human and environmental safety.”
As a result, Morin has said, the industry does not expect to “see anything like the Deepwater Horizon again.”
Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., said the industry did not expect the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the Exxon Valdez spill or any number of accidents big and small.
And in December, the Trump administration halted an independent review of the offshore oil inspections done by the federal agency created after the spill to improve offshore safety and environmental practices.
“Any place we drill, we spill and sometimes we spill in small amounts. ... We know that is part of the daily way of life and cost of doing business in the Gulf of Mexico,” Weaver said. “They’re seeking to expand drilling at the same time that they’re seeking to make it less safe.”
She added that Zinke’s decision could be legally fraught for the Interior Department. Along the East Coast, only Maine and Georgia are listed as asking to be included in the program. Georgia said it “supports environmentally sound efforts” to increase domestic oil and gas reserves and supports the program provided a range of environmental concerns can be addressed.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of litigation around this when the plan goes final. And people are going to ask: ‘Did they act arbitrarily and capriciously in treating Florida differently?’ ” she said.
Zinke’s tweet, which called Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted,” might not pass legal muster, she said.
“You’re supposed to have a considered, thorough decision-making process,” she said. “Making any decision two days after the comment period starts is entirely inconsistent with that.”