Drowning in Oil: How Trump’s Offshore Drilling Policies Will Impact the US Coastline

Seven years after the Deepwater Horizon oil platform coated the Gulf Coast in oil, the US government led by Donald Trump has set in motion an apocalyptic fire sale on drilling rights in all our waters. The proposed policies would drastically expand coastal oil and gas drilling by auctioning off leases on public maritime waters. Essentially, our beaches and coastlines are now up for sale by the Trump administration, with the backing of the Republican Party, as they ease the 2010 regulations put in place following the worst oil spill in US history. The 11 deaths cased by the Deepwater explosion, and the four million barrels of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, were not enough warning to stop Trump from auctioning off America’s coastline, piece by piece.

As ever, Trump’s plan is short-sighted. Scientists say the Deepwater Horizon spill caused more than $17 billion in damages to natural resources alone. If you’re under the age of 30, you may not remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But if you head to Prince William Sound you need only dig a few inches into the ground to strike oil, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The oil industry, naturally, disagrees with these findings because it would be inconvenient if the public knew the true economic and environmental impacts of their business. The Trump administration has made its position all too clear, slashing the NOAA budget by more than 16 percent. The repercussions of this approach has practical effects both today and tomorrow. Trump is taking the lessons learned from a lifetime of losing money and applying them to our home, planet Earth. The irreversible damage he could inflict through these regulatory changes may last generations.

A Terrifying Amout of Drilling Awaits

Interestingly, it seems Trump knows something about the potential dangers of offshore oil drilling, because out of 26 “planning areas” for potential drill sites, only one was exempt: Florida. Florida happens to be the home of Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s so-called “Winter White House”. In true Trumpian fashion, Trump appears only willing to protect what belongs to him.

As the rest of the country goes, the offshore drilling plans include the “largest number of lease sales ever proposed,” as Interior Secretary Zinke boasted recently to reporters. Call it Black Friday for the oil and gas industry. Over the next five years, more leases to drill will be sold than at any time in US history. After the Deepwater Horizon spill, the world sighed with relief when President Obama announced a new program to protect US shores. Now, Trump wants to dismantle Obama’s protections, which currently protect 94 percent of all US coastline, and open up a staggering — and terrifying — 90 percent of US shoreline to drilling.

The National Commission that investigated the Deepwater spill revealed that what caused the explosion were in fact numerous mistakes made by BP, which drilled the well, and Halliburton, which cemented the well. Even the drill ship operator, Transocean, made mistakes that contributed to the blowout. The National Commission wrote bluntly there were “such systematic failures in risk management that they place in doubt the safety culture of the entire industry.”

As these findings get ignored by the most anti-regulatory administration in modern American history, a recent report by NPR described how the Trump administration is also getting rid of a rule that requires offshore drilling equipment — such as the blowout preventers that failed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster — to be subject to assessment by a third party inspector. Instead the rule will be replaced by “industry-set recommendations,” which might as well be called enticing legal loopholes for oil and gas companies. Even as BP continues to pay out billions trying to clean up in the aftermath of the Deepwater disaster, the oil industry is drooling over the prospect of potential new oil deposits found close to existing pipelines and refineries in Louisiana and Texas.

When There’s Little Left to Deregulate

Now Trump plans to increase domestic oil and gas production by “reducing the regulatory burden on industry.” One person on the National Commission investigating the Deepwater disaster was Donald Boesch, who wrote in response to Trump’s proposed changes: “In my view, such a shift will put workers and the environment at risk, and ignores the painful lessons of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.” The radical about-turn that the Trump administration has taken, by opening up so much US coastline to fresh drilling, puts into question whether there will be time or resources to regulate the industry effectively, if at all.

Fortunately, the fate of every US beach hasn’t been sealed just yet. The changes have only been proposed and what follows is a 60-day period for the public and state authorities to submit comments. The message to citizens: Unless you only want to vacation in Florida, this is the time to make your voice heard. Otherwise, Trump’s plan will go into effect in 2019.

Immediately after the Florida exemption was announced, several other states also called for exemptions. The first was Oregon. California then joined the debate after Zinke released a statement saying, “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott’s [sic] and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

In response, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tweeted: “California is also ‘unique’ & our ‘coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.’ Our ‘local and state voice’ is firmly opposed to any and all offshore drilling. If that’s your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately.”

In fact, the majority of coastal states are opposed to the plans. Even in Florida, Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club’s Florida director, said in a statement: “Had Zinke cared about the wishes of coastal communities or how drilling off their coasts will affect them, he would have proposed a plan that shrinks drilling even further, not proposed expanding operations to nearly every corner of our waters.”

The Real Reason for All the Drilling?

The Trump administration has failed to adequately explain its reasoning for the sharp rollback of drilling regulations. Some political analysts are now starting to question whether there may be some personal or business reasons for the Florida exemption from offshore drilling. Beyond Mar-a-Lago, Trump has other business and real estate interests in Florida, indicating another potential giant conflict of interest — though there is no way to know because of the President has not divulged his business interests or released his tax forms.

It’s too early to say whether the backlash from coastal states will be enough to derail the administration’s proposed drilling expansion. Indeed, the future of the policy remains unclear as state and local governments are frantically rushing to use their local regulatory powers and find other ways to stop offshore drilling. Democrats in the California state legislature are introducing SB834, a bill that bans all new pipelines, piers, wharves or other infrastructure that would use state waters. Their example may catch on as local and state governments scramble to protect their coastal waters from drilling.

Alas, with everything else this administration is doing or trying to do, the oil controversy may get quickly forgotten by the media and the public, only to be brought up at a more urgent and sudden date. Because the day the oil starts flowing and ends up on our beaches is the day it will be forgotten no longer. Our coastlines are more than scenic gems of the USA. They are economic engines that drive entire industries as well. Even if you could care less about the seals and only care about the dollars, offshore oil drilling is a stupid proposition. That’s probably why Trump loves it.