Environmentalists, fishermen, and state governments are signaling their opposition to the Trump administration’s proposed plan to reopen the ocean off Cape Cod and New England to oil and gas exploration.
“We are skeptical of anything the Trump Administration is doing in the marine environment or anything they are proposing to do,” said Conservation Law Foundation Vice President Priscilla Brooks.
A 2016 Bureau of Ocean Energy Management report estimated nearly 90 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 327 trillion tons of natural gas existed in mostly unexplored areas of the U.S. continental shelf. The new push for fossil fuel exploration and recovery was announced Jan. 4 with the unveiling of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s Draft Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. It is part of President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to make the U.S. more energy independent.
Currently, offshore fossil fuel exploration is controlled by a BOEM plan finalized near the end of the Obama presidency. Obama invoked a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, to give what he said would be permanent protection from drilling to the continental shelf from Virginia to Maine.
But there were doubts that Obama’s use of the 1953 law would hold up in court, and the new plan is meant to replace the current one. International Association of Drilling Contractors President Jason McFarland hailed the inclusion of the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and an expansion of Gulf of Mexico drilling areas as an important step in achieving the goal of U.S. energy dominance in the world.
“IADC has long argued for access to areas that hold potential for oil and gas development,” McFarland wrote in comments last month, citing a U.S. Energy Information Administration estimate of a 48 percent growth in worldwide energy demand over the next 20 years. “The number and scale of the recoverable resources is large, and can lead to thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in investment.”
But the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and the various fishermen’s associations have panned the proposal. Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council approved a comment letter to BOEM that requested Mid-Atlantic and Northern Atlantic lease areas be excluded from the exploration and drilling.
A 2016 BOEM report ranked the North Atlantic eighth in the country out of 22 planning areas for undiscovered but economically recoverable oil and gas resources, but still far below potential in the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic. BOEM’s 2016 National Assessment did not include hard data for the Atlantic, but used geologic formations, economic data and other information from known sites to project where possible resources might be, and the cost to extract them.
Seismic testing was done along the Atlantic coast back in the 1960s, ending in the 1980s, but test wells off the New England coast all came up empty.
BOEM estimated that approximately 1.77 billion barrels of oil and 11.76 trillion cubic feet of gas are undiscovered and are technically and economically recoverable in the North Atlantic planning area, although the range of uncertainty is large at 60 million to 5.11 billion barrels of oil and 1.08 trillion to 32.74 trillion cubic feet gas. Seismic information and test wells would improve that accuracy, according to BOEM.
But oil prices have only recently started to recover from a 2015 crash to less than $30 per barrel, with oil at around $64 per barrel Monday compared with nearly $160 in 2008. According to Forbes magazine, natural gas prices have fallen by more than 60 percent since 2008 as U.S. production increased dramatically over the past decade and is anticipated to continue to grow by one to two percent each year in the coming decades.
“I don’t think anything has changed in the energy world for the limited amount of gas and oil on Georges Bank that warrants the expense of going after it,” said CLF Senior Counsel Peter Shelley. “We have kept them (oil and gas companies) out of New England and there is no reason to change.”
Only the new Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary were exempted from the new five-year leasing program as potential drilling sites. Governors of all the coastal Atlantic states, with the exception of Maine Gov. Paul LePage, have voiced their opposition to the proposal.
Many fear the environmental consequences could far outweigh any energy benefits.
A 2013 report by Lindy Weilgart, of Canada’s Dalhousie University, on a seismic airgun survey used to discover oil and gas deposits found the sound covers an area of more than 115,000 square miles and can penetrate more than 100 miles below the sea floor and raise the ocean noise level a hundred fold. A 2012 study analyzed 10 years of recordings from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and found the airguns were heard at nearly 2,500 miles from the survey vessels.
In her August comments to BOEM, state Attorney General Maura Healey voiced fears that an oil spill would devastate the fishery, maritime and tourist economies of Massachusetts. The state’s maritime economy generated $3.9 billion in wages, $9.8 billion in sales and $6.4 billion in goods and services, according to Healey. Commercial fishing contributed $7.3 billion in seafood sales.
“They talk about creating jobs, but there are a lot of jobs already out there that depend on a healthy ocean,” said Gib Brogan, fishery campaign manager for Oceana. “We think this is a real threat and it wouldn’t be on the table if there wasn’t somebody with a real interest to go out there and get it.”
Shelley feared even the idea the U.S. would reopen the North Atlantic to exploration and leasing could have repercussions. The Canadians have a moratorium on testing and drilling on Nova Scotia offshore areas north of New England that is set to expire in 2022, Shelley said.
“To the extent that the U.S. is wavering from its stated objective to keep Georges Bank healthy for fish production, this would undercut international agreements,” he said.