Ocean Confidence is a semi-submersible deep-water drilling rig used in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM
Ocean Confidence is a semi-submersible deep-water drilling rig used in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM

Washington – Environmentalists and their supporters in Congress opened a new front in their battles with the Trump administration Tuesday with a bill that would put the Atlantic Ocean and other coastal areas off limits to natural gas and oil production.

A group of 16 Democratic senators, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, reintroduced the Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism Anti-Drilling (COAST) Act in response to President Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order last week telling the secretary of the interior to consider including the Mid- and South Atlantic areas among those in the agency’s 2017-2022 plan to sell oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf.

To Blumenthal, the prospect of oil exploration along the East Coast would be an environmental danger to Long Island Sound.

“The Long Island Sound is a beautiful treasure integral to Connecticut’s history, identity, and economy. We want to see our coastline brimming with swimmers and fishermen—not giant, polluting oil rigs,” he said. “In the face of efforts by President Trump to benefit Big Oil, (the COAST Act) would protect waterways like the Sound for future generations.”

The COAST Act has been introduced in Congress by coastal Democrats for years without success, and faces an uphill climb in a GOP-controlled House and Senate.

But it is the latest shot by those who oppose the Trump administration’s review and repeal of Obama’s environmental policy.

The struggle over reopening the Atlantic to offshore oil and gas drilling has gone on for decades.

Starting in the early 1980’s, drilling was banned in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and limited largely to the western portion of the Gulf of Mexico and waters off the coast of Alaska by moratoria imposed both by Congress and the White House.

Former President George W. Bush lifted the executive branch moratorium, threatened to veto any legislation that included the ban, and proposed to do what hadn’t been done in more than 30 years — open the Atlantic to oil and gas production with a lease sale in the Mid- and South Atlantic.

Obama disappointed environmentalists by continuing work on Bush’s five-year energy proposal, with some modifications. But, in response to the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, work on the lease sale was postponed.

Then, as Obama was preparing to leave office, he removed the Atlantic from the next five-year lease plan and banned drilling in the Atlantic from the Canadian border to Virginia. He also rejected six permit applications to conduct seismic testing off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, effectively ending attempts to search for oil and gas in those areas.

Trump’s executive order directs the secretaries of Commerce and Interiors to develop a streamlined permitting approach for privately funded seismic data research and collection “to expeditiously determine the offshore resource potential of the United States.”

“Revenue to the federal government from leasing the outer-continental shelf has fallen by over 80 percent, from $18 billion in 2008 to $2.8 billion in 2016,” Trump’s directive said.

The order also says “under the previous administrations, America’s offshore resources were blocked from responsible development.”

North Atlantic next?

Curt Johnson, executive director of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment – Save the Sound, said he’s “extremely concerned” about Trump’s efforts to overturn Obama’s offshore drilling actions.

“Very few people in Connecticut realize if drilling were approved it would be 100 miles off Long Island Sound,” he said.

He said an oil spill in the mid-Atlantic would be “a disaster” to the Sound and “the entire Atlantic ecosystem.”

He also said that, from a climate perspective, the abundant reserves of oil that are thought to be in deep waters just off the outer continental shelf would help hasten climate change.

Environmentalists also are concerned that if the energy production ban is lifted on the mid-Atlantic, the North Atlantic would be the fossil fuel industry’s next target.

“There’s no question about it,” Johnson said.

About 4,913 square miles of the Atlantic off Cape Cod are shielded from oil and gas production because former President Obama designated the area the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument under the Antiquities Act.

That law established by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, allows presidents to create national monuments, including marine preserves, where oil drilling, commercial fishing and mining are not allowed.

But Trump’s offshore order followed another one signed by the president that directed Zinke to “review” the Antiquities Act.

That could strip the protections from the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a massive, coral-filled undersea area where the continental shelf drops off into the deep Atlantic waters. It includes 31 canyons and four extinct underwater volcanoes, called seamounts.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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