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Interior Department Shelves Oil and Gas Lease off Atlantic Coast

The administration moves forward with offshore plans for the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, but its removal of an Atlantic lease sale sparks sharp responses from industry.


Stating that “now is not the right time” for offshore oil and gas drilling activities along the Mid- and South Atlantic coast, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on Tuesday announced that a potential lease sale for that region has been removed from the agency’s proposed Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas leasing program for 2017–2022.

The OCS proposal, open for comments until 16 June, alters a January 2015 draft version that included an option for a potential lease sale off the shore of the Atlantic coast. The proposal, a key component of the administration’s comprehensive energy strategy, recommends moving forward with 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, which the agency says is one of the most productive basins in the world. It also evaluates three lease sales off Alaska, an area that Jewell said “demands specialized planning and detailed considerations.” The proposal calls for no new leases off the U.S. West Coast, where there has been strong opposition.

During a 15 March telephone briefing, Jewell said the agency heard from many people who opposed the Atlantic lease sale, including local communities that depend on fishing, tourism, and shipping activities.

“When you factor in conflicts with commercial and national defense activities, market conditions, and opposition from local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with the Atlantic lease sale in the near future,” she said. “As a result, this one potential lease sale in the Mid- and South Atlantic that was evaluated in the draft proposed program has been removed.”

Jewell said that the Department of Defense (DOD) had raised concerns that oil and gas development in the Mid- and South Atlantic could conflict with increased naval training activities there. The removal of that lease sale would lower the projection of future U.S. oil production by about 0.1% and would lower the U.S. natural gas production projection by 0.06%, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). “Thus, the energy security of the United States will remain strong without offshore leasing in the Atlantic during the 2017–2022 program,” BOEM states in the new OCS proposal.

Revised Plan Draws Praise and Criticism

The removal of the Atlantic regions from the OCS proposal drew widespread applause from environmental groups and condemnation from industry groups.

“Coastal communities have won a ‘David vs. Goliath’ fight against the richest companies on the planet,” said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president of U.S. oceans for Oceana, an international environmental group.

Savitz urged the administration to stop seismic air gun use in the Atlantic and to stop new lease sales in the Arctic Ocean, which she said put “unique and diverse ecosystems at risk.”

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he was struck by Department of Defense concerns about incompatibility of offshore drilling with naval operations off the coast of Virginia, which BOEM cited as one reason for its decision. “The DOD has been relatively quiet during this public debate and has never shared their objections with me before,” said Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Virginia governor. “I look forward to additional discussions with DOD to understand its position.”

The removal of the Atlantic lease sale is “disappointing and mind-boggling,” said Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade association representing offshore energy and related industries. “The administration clearly places politics ahead of sound science and wise energy policy.”

Luthi said that offshore oil and gas operations proceed safely around the world and described as “a red herring” the administration’s use of the nation’s military concerns to partly justify its decision. “Military and oil and natural gas activities have coexisted for years in the Gulf of Mexico,” he said. “By removing the Atlantic sale, we are saying the military and industry can’t figure out a way to make it work. That doesn’t even come close to passing the red-face test.”

Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the trade association American Petroleum Institute, said the administration’s decision “appeases extremists who seek to stop oil and natural gas production which would increase the cost of energy for American consumers and close the door for years to creating new jobs, new investments and boosting energy security.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2016), Interior department shelves oil and gas lease off Atlantic Coast, Eos97, doi:10.1029/2016EO048439. Published on 17 March 2016.

© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0