The oil industry has been put on the defensive in the fight over the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling.
The backlash against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ’s decision to consider oil and natural gas drilling nearly everywhere along the nation’s coasts has been fierce and bipartisan.
Drilling opponents have dominated the public conversation since the plan was released in January. Meanwhile, almost all of the Atlantic and Pacific coast governors have come out in opposition to the plan, spurring Zinke to remove Florida’s waters from the proposal just days after it was released.
With energy prices, including for gasoline, remaining fairly low, the industry is facing numerous headwinds as it pushes to open up significant new areas for drilling.
“We recognize the fact that this is a bit of an uphill fight because the pressure is off,” said Tim Charters, a lobbyist at the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents oil companies and others involved in offshore oil, gas and wind development.
“When Florida’s tourism is getting crushed because gasoline is $4 a gallon, folks want to look at new drilling. When oil has been stable for several years and gasoline is around $2.50, the pressure is off,” he said.
“We’re working to remind everyone that these resources belong to the American people and should be used for the benefit of all of America.”
One person who works in energy industry advocacy said that the Trump administration is likely to come out with a final drilling plan that oil and gas interests can be proud of.
But that person also warned the industry risks losing the narrative unless it steadily makes the case to the public for offshore drilling.
“We can always do ,” he said. “Even though you know you’re always going to be outnumbered, you have to make sure that that voice of why this is beneficial gets out there.”
The Trump administration’s January drilling proposal would schedule lease sales for offshore drilling rights between 2019 and 2024.
In a move without recent precedent, the administration proposed offshore drilling almost everywhere: the entire Pacific and Atlantic coasts, all of Alaska’s waters except the ecologically sensitive Bristol Bay and the entire Gulf of Mexico coast, which currently hosts the vast majority of the nation’s offshore drilling.
The January announcement was just the first step of many. Officials are taking public comments through next week. They will then potentially narrow the options down, release another proposal, take comments again and then release a final version, which could be narrower still.
It would likely be years before any drilling began.
But the plan nonetheless sparked wide-ranging opposition from lawmakers, governors, coastal towns and businesses, not to mention environmentalists.
Opponents fear that spills like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster could wreak havoc across multiple states, hurting both coastal businesses and the environment.
“Whether it’s environmental devastation that people care about or economic devastation, coastal communities do not want this. And the people and businesses who have the most to lose from the offshore drilling proposal just absolutely do not want it,” said Diane Hoskins, campaigns director for Oceana.
Opponents of the plan have been vocal, pushing towns to pass resolutions, staging protests, writing newspaper letters to the editor and buying advertising.
But the oil industry has also been active, drawing upon military veterans, grass-roots efforts and web advertising to push the drilling expansion.
The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) has been working in coastal states and communities, pushing people to file comments with the Interior Department, attending local meetings and .
The industry-backed group counts thousands of individual members across the country.
“Our position on this is that this should be a good opportunity to learn and kind of listen to all the differing perspectives and gathering information,” said David Holt, president of CEA.
“What are the benefits for offshore to these coastal communities and states? What are the opportunities for revenue? What are the opportunities for jobs and infrastructure and all the other things,” he said.
“There are groups out there that are trying to foreclose a discussion for the general public and families and small business and elected leaders to better understand what these opportunities are. That’s what we’re trying to inject in the conversation.”
The American Petroleum Institute (API), the industry’s main lobby in Washington, D.C., has also been active, meeting with decisionmakers and using its existing grass-roots campaigns like Energy Nation and Energy Citizens.
“If we’re going to truly try to embrace American energy security, it’s essential for us to keep as many options on the table as possible, so we can at least find out what kind of resources might be out there. That’s all we’re talking about at this point,” said Erik Milito, the group’s upstream director.
Milito said much of the conversation from API centers on the argument that it’s in the country’s best interest to produce oil and gas domestically instead of relying on imports.
“It’s really a fundamental question that we face: do we want to produce oil and natural gas here in the U.S. or do we want to move that investment to other parts of the world?”
But industry is also pushing back on environmental objections to offshore drilling, saying its safety record has improved dramatically since the Deepwater Horizon spill.
“Over the past eight years, industry and government have really ramped up safety through equipment, practices and safety systems, as well as regulations,” Milito said.
The biggest setback for oil and its allies was the exemption that Zinke gave to Florida. After a brief meeting with Gov. Rick Scott (R) — a close Trump ally and likely Senate candidate — Zinke said waters near Florida will not be in the plan.
But it’s unclear whether that will completely foreclose drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. That area is the top prospect for drillers, since they have a good sense of the geology and they have infrastructure and equipment nearby.
While the industry was publicly angry about Zinke’s decision, officials say it’s not necessarily a complete loss.
“He could keep portions of the eastern Gulf open and block most of the rest of Florida and maybe that would be acceptable,” an industry source said.
Nor will drilling necessarily be blocked from the entire Pacific or Atlantic coasts. Zinke is obligated to consider governors’ opinions, but they don’t have to be the last word.
“They’re not lost causes,” Milito said. “They have to consider a multitude of factors when it comes to where and when to provide leasing opportunities in the outer continental shelf. The views of the governors are an important factor, but they’re one of many.”