The Trump administration’s proposal to allow offshore oil and natural-gas drilling in federal waters off the Atlantic Coast could make 2018 an even tougher election year for Republicans in coastal states.
The long-awaited plan would reverse an Obama-era prohibition on offshore energy exploration and make good on a campaign promise by President Donald Trump to boost U.S. energy production. That much Republicans can cheer.
But the plan will also force a number of anxious, regional Republican candidates — already unsettled by predictions of a Democratic wave in the midterm elections — to either side with an unpopular president’s industry-friendly proposal, or join coastal residents, businesses and environmental groups in opposing it.
"For members that have districts that are impacted, it will definitely be an issue," Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., who represents a coastal district and opposes offshore drilling. "Geography will drive the politics here."
That political dynamic was in full effect on Thursday.
After Florida’s Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson delivered a speech on the Senate floor opposing offshore drilling on Wednesday, Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is widely expected to seek Nelson’s seat, broke months of silence on the issue, saying he too opposes drilling off Florida’s coast.
“I have already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration,” Scott said in a statement. “My top priority is to ensure that Florida’s natural resources are protected.”
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the proposed five-year plan from 2019-2024 would make over 90 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf acreage available for oil and gas leasing. Restrictions by the Obama administration currently make 94 percent of the continental shelf off limits to fossil fuel exploration.
The new plan’s 47 potential lease sales would be the largest amount ever proposed in a five-year schedule, Zinke told reporters in an afternoon briefing. Nineteen potential lease sales would occur off the coast of Alaska, 7 in the Pacific region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico and 9 in the Atlantic region off the east coast. There have been no lease sales in the Atlantic since 1983.
Rep. Richard Hudson, R-NC, co-chair of the Atlantic Offshore Energy Caucus, applauded Trump’s proposal and the jobs it could provide.
“I’m thrilled we finally have a president who shares my desire to responsibly open North Carolina to energy exploration and energy jobs while protecting our beautiful coastal waters,” Hudson said in a statement. “I applaud this announcement and will continue to work to get North Carolina into the energy business to unlock good-paying energy jobs and strengthen our energy security.”
Thursday’s action was yet another effort to overturn an Obama administration policy decried by the GOP. President Obama removed the Atlantic Ocean from the nation’s five year program for oil and gas development in March 2016 and later barred drilling in environmentally sensitive areas of the Atlantic from Virginia to Maine.
Both moves followed widespread opposition from local governments along the Eastern seaboard that feared oil and gas development would threaten local economies centered on tourism and commercial and recreational fishing.
But Trump signed an executive order in April that called for reversing the Obama-era prohibitions. Thursday’s proposal formalizes Trump’s “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.”
“Today's announcement lays out the options that are on the table and starts a lengthy and robust public comment period,” Zinke said.
Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, said the group will push for field hearings in coastal towns where residents can express their feelings about the proposal. Similar hearings attended by hundreds of residents forced the Obama administration to reverse course on Atlantic drilling.
"So we fully anticipate the same thing is going to happen," Hoskins said. "If the Trump administration wants to come down here and listen to what the people of the southeast think, they're going to get an earful."
Growing opposition to east coast drilling has become a bipartisan issue. Along with Florida’s Scott, Republican governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Henry McMaster of South Carolina have joined Democratic governors from of North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware in their opposition to drilling and undersea seismic testing for oil and gas deposits.
In North Carolina, Kyle Horton, a Democrat, is running for the coastal 7th district congressional seat held by Republican Dave Rouzer, an outspoken supporter of offshore drilling. Horton said she’ll make the issue a central pillar of her campaign.
Horton, who lost a family member in the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, said Trump’s plan could jeopardize an estimated $95 billion in ocean-related commerce on the Atlantic Coast and nearly 1.4 million jobs if a major accident occurred. In North Carolina, that could mean as many as 51,000 jobs and $2.2 billion in tourism and hospitality revenue, she said.
“The bottom line is you don’t have to have my ties to the Deepwater Horizon to be deeply concerned about the safety of drilling and to understand the risk to our economy and our way of life,” Horton said. “I am very concerned that where we’ve drilled, we’ve spilled. And where we’ve spilled, we’ve killed. Not just marine life, but workers,” Horton said.
In a statement, Rouzer said the proposal is merely a starting point for a long regulatory process that will determine if offshore drilling is suitable off the North Carolina coast.
“I have stated publicly and remain committed to ensuring that our local coastal communities receive a portion of any revenues derived from offshore exploration for the dredging of inlets, waterways and for beach nourishment and restoration as well as for our other infrastructural needs,” Rouzer wrote. “Congress will not determine whether offshore happens; the regulatory process will.”
Still, one environmental activist said the policy will give opponents of coastal drilling and seismic testing the upper hand on an important campaign issue.
“I’m sure that people will be looking out for who is protecting the interests of the people and the businesses and industries along the coast, versus who's watching out for the oil industry," said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, NC.
But others said the drilling issue is not a cut-and-dry partisan issue.
In South Carolina's Sanford has opposed offshore drilling for years, saying it's a position shared by his constituents. The Republican lawmaker who represents a coastal area on Thursday afternoon called the new administration policy "misguided and shortsighted."
Sanford's Democratic challenger, Joe Cunningham, feels the same way, but tweeted that unlike Sanford he would, in Congress, stand firm against bills that don't explicitly ban the practice.
"As (your) Congressman, I will fight offshore drilling with every fiber of my being," said Cunningham. "And unlike Sanford, I won’t VOTE for bills that allow it."
Sanford has consistently fought against provisions in large spending bills that promote offshore drilling but hasn't often withheld his support on the final package when the efforts fell short.
Republican State Rep. Katie Arrington of Summerville, who is challenging Sanford in the GOP primary by casting herself as the pro-Trump candidate, took a completely different position Thursday.
"As it relates to American energy independence, the difference between Mark Sanford and me couldn't be any clearer. Mark Sanford continues to support Barack Obama's policy of foreign oil dependence while I fully support an America First policy of true American energy independence," she told McClatchy in an email.
But Sanford showed no signs of backing down from his position Thursday, telling McClatchy he had ideas for how elected officials should "look for leverage" to minimize some of the impact of the administration's new decision.
Sanford said he and a number of colleagues from both sides of the aisle would send a letter to House Republican leaders to oppose pending legislation that would undermine existing laws further protecting the Atlantic Ocean from oil and gas exploration.
He suggested South Carolina officials look for areas of the state they could protect from drilling through a provision that cites such activity as an impediment to military training and readiness. Florida has employed this strategy to prevent some drilling off the Gulf of Mexico.
Finally, Sanford said Gov. Henry McMaster needed to step up to the plate.
"He needs to be more vocal," said Sanford. "I would encourage him to use the leverage that he has in this important debate."
McMaster opposes offshore drilling but has not, like other governors who disagree with the White House's policies on the issue, written to the administration to formally register his disapproval.
His spokesman, Brian Symmes, said McMaster "expresses his thoughts directly to the president and those in his administration."
Alex Daugherty and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.