Trump administration hits pause on offshore oil plans after Alaska court ruling

A recent federal court decision appears to have struck a blow to President Donald Trump’s plans to expand offshore oil and natural gas drilling across the U.S. continental shelf, with the aim of turning the United States into an energy-exporting behemoth.

In his first interview since being confirmed to Trump’s Cabinet, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told the Wall Street Journal that a recent ruling by a district court in Alaska has stalled plans that at one time called for opening up most U.S. continental-shelf waters to oil and gas companies.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason ruled that Trump’s revocation of a ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans is illegal. The judge ruled that Congress would need to step in to reverse a decision by President Barack Obama to ban offshore drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

With the appeals process in the case expected to drag on for months, if not years, Bernhardt suggested any plan his department crafts now would have to be rewritten by the time the dust settles over the suit. In the meantime, the administration's plans to offer oil and gas drilling leases in these areas are now stalled.

"By the time the court rules, that may be discombobulating to our plan," Bernhardt told the Journal.

"What if you guess wrong?" Bernhardt added of the uncertainties surrounding the case. "I'm not sure that's a very satisfactory and responsible use of resources."

When reached for comment, Interior spokeswoman Molly Block reiterated that the department is reevaluating how to move forward with its offshore drilling ambitions.


"Given the recent court decision, the Department is simply evaluating all of its options to determine the best pathway to accomplish the mission entrusted to it by the President," Block wrote by email.

[Dual Alaska environmental rulings deal setbacks to Trump]

The ruling out of Alaska is the latest is a series of legal losses by the Trump administration as it tries to trim environmental regulations and expand fossil-fuel use. "It does show that this sort of litigation is having an impact on their decision-making," said Sierra Club senior attorney Devorah Ancel, who has worked on offshore drilling cases for the group.

Oil industry officials said they were optimistic, however, that the case would not be tied up in court for too long. "We are hopeful that an appeal of this case will move quickly and that we can proceed with the important work of exploring for America's offshore resources without unnecessary delay," Erik Milito, vice president of upstream operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

The administration's proposal to allow oil and gas drilling in nearly every corner of U.S. continental-shelf waters - in the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean - drew immediate backlash from Democratic lawmakers and local Republican politicians in coastal states with economies that depend on tourism.

"Every single governor from Maine to Florida and from Washington to California oppose offshore drilling off their coast," said Collin O'Mara, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation. "Every single one. Republican and Democrat alike."

Environmentalists grew concerned not only over the climate-change ramifications of such activity but also over the effects that loud seismic testing could have on whales and other sea life.

"It's fair to say seismic air gun blasting is extremely loud and disruptive ... is that correct?" Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., asked an Interior official last month before blasting off an air horn inside a House hearing room.

Trump officials felt the heat almost immediately after unveiling the proposal in January 2018. Within days, Bernhardt's predecessor, Ryan Zinke, acquiesced to demands from then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott , a Republican, to exclude the state from leasing.

That exception led more state leaders to ask why Florida and Scott, who went on to unseat a Democratic senator last year, were receiving special treatment.

By March, Zinke backtracked further by expressing doubt that oil and gas exploration would happen in the Pacific.

Still on politicians' minds was the disastrous Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, which spilled 215 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Democrats and their environmentalist allies celebrated Bernhardt's comments.

"This administration has treated public waters like a bottomless cash cow for Big Oil from day one, and if it takes a court order to get them to see reason, so be it," House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a statement.

Many Democrats running to remove Trump from office in 2020 are making the administration's offshore drilling aspirations an issue by calling for a moratorium on all fossil-fuel leasing both in public waters and on public lands.

“It’s an issue staring everyone in the face,” said Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.