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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

April 9, 2018

Voters Against Off-Shore Drilling on Commonwealth’s Coast

State / Issue

Offshore oil rig at sunset

Offshore drilling is one of the key public policy issues that the Wason Center has focused its attention on. The crux of the issue is balancing economic interests with environmental concerns, and since Virginia is a large coastal state the issue augments in importance. Considering the recent actions taken by the Trump Administration to increase offshore drilling, the Wason Center hopes to provide an accurate and detailed overview of the issue.

The Trump administration has made headlines by authorizing auctions through an executive order for over a billion acres off the coasts of California, the Eastern Seaboard (although Florida was given an exception) and the Arctic for the purposes of drilling for oil. These auctions would primarily take place between 2019 and 2024, and include previously protected areas off California that have been restricted since a 1969 spill near Santa Barbara. According to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, 90% of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf is in play for drilling, an extremely high number considering only 6% was available during the previous administration. Additionally, a couple of key monitoring procedures for federal officials on offshore drilling were altered in an effort to promote industry growth. This action is in sharp contrast to Barack Obama’s policies on offshore drilling, which aimed to restrict drilling for oil in areas that could harm Americans environmentally. The move has been called a blow to Obama’s environmental legacy, but critics are mixed on whether these moves are more detrimental to American environmental policy or effective for energy sufficiency and the economy.

One of Trump’s main campaign points was to improve the American economy and address the trade deficit. By allowing the wide expansion of offshore drilling, the President hopes to deliver these promises. Proponents argue that the energy dominance that the United States once had is possible to recapture with actions such as this one, and will strengthen the U.S.’ global positioning and influence. The results of offshore drilling do in fact affect the trade deficit: by becoming more energy-sufficient, the need to import oil from other countries lessens and, subsequently, America’s trade deficit decreases. Proponents also cite advances in drilling technology as a reason to make this move, arguing that the environmental threats from oil drilling have never been less likely. “American energy production can be competitive while remaining safe and environmentally sound,” said acting Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Walter Cruickshank. Gas and oil officials also hail this action, stating that the Obama-led restrictions on drilling and safety procedures were overreactions to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, which was the largest oil spill in American history. Trump’s new plan brings the safety procedures and monitoring policies back full-circle to the standards that were established prior to the Deepwater crisis, evidencing the Trump administration’s sentiment that the Obama-era regulations were unnecessary and overbearing.

On the other side of the offshore drilling argument are those who believe the potential environmental degradation outweighs the economic benefits. After events like the BP oil spill (a.k.a. Deepwater), residents and elected officials from coastal areas worry that another environmental disaster could permanently harm a very fragile ecosystem. Another argument that opponents of offshore drilling utilize is that allowing offshore drilling impairs military readiness. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld first iterated this concern in 2005, stating that offshore drilling interferes with military training exercises and thus is a threat to national security. This is one of the major reasons that the ban extended so widely on America’s coastlines, and is an important context to consider.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam joined a list of current sitting Southeast governors in opposing the action that includes Rick Scott (R-Florida) and Roy Cooper (D-North Carolina). Among their concerns are threats to their states’ economies, which rely heavily on fishing and tourism in coastal regions. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) also took issue with how Trump granted Florida an exemption from the plan, saying that the local voices only mattered to Trump because they came from a Republican-controlled state. Partisan politics, according to Kaine, were the deciding factor in Trump granting Rick Scott the exemption, and Kaine views this as only benefiting Republicans.

In a Wason Center survey released earlier this month, Virginians were asked about offshore drilling. 54% of respondents said they either “Strongly Disapprove” or “Somewhat Disapprove” of Trump’s executive order removing the ban on offshore drilling, with only 37% “Strongly Approving” or “Somewhat Approving” the ban.

Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Virginia Beach) also voiced his opposition to President Trump’s plan, due in large part because his constituency is vocal in their disapproval of the action; however, he downplayed the influence of partisan politics. Virginia Beach (and Hampton Roads as a whole) is economically buoyed by the U.S. Navy, and with the military opposition to offshore drilling, Taylor felt that the plan does not represent the best interests of his constituents.

What makes this intriguing is Taylor’s district is considered to be one of Virginia’s most competitive House districts for the upcoming congressional elections, and by distancing himself from Trump (and his unpopular removal of the ban on offshore drilling) Taylor may have bought some points with voters. It has been argued that Trump’s offshore drilling plan may actually help Democrats in the 2018 midterms, in that voters concerned with the environment may be energized and more engaged in this set of elections. This would bode well for Democrats, as they hope to win 24 seats in the House and take control.

The political ramifications of Trump’s 5-year energy plan that includes expanding offshore drilling are yet to be fully observed. It remains to be seen whether these policy implementations could have an effect on the 2018 congressional midterm elections, but it is clear from Wason survey data that Virginians take this issue very seriously.

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