Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ocean Watch 13

Mid-Atlantic Ocean Watch

Welcome back to Ocean Watch; a weekly recap of federal and regional actions that impact the coastal and marine water quality and ecosystems of the Mid-Atlantic Ocean. Clean Ocean Action will aggregate and analyze these actions, and signify the impact and threat level to the Mid-Atlantic using color coding – Red is a high level threat, orange is intermediate, yellow is a caution, and green would be a positive action. While many of these actions have taken place in Washington DC, and don’t affect the mid-Atlantic directly, the direction of national energy, climate, and regulatory policy will have implications and impacts for the mid-Atlantic region.

Oil and Gas Drilling in the Mid-Atlantic is Moving Forward

For many weeks, COA has been writing on the threat of oil and gas exploration and drilling in our region’s waters. We have remained diligent as an organization, leveraging our connections with regional and national non-profits, communicating and pushing for action from our elected officials, and organizing from the seaweed level up to ensure that the message from the Mid-Atlantic coastal communities is loud and clear – “the Mid-Atlantic is off limits to oil and gas development”.

On April 28, President Trump signed an Executive Order implementing an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” which contains several provisions aimed at expanding offshore drilling. These include:
  • The establishment of a national policy “to encourage energy exploration and production, including on the Outer Continental Shelf.”
  • The revocation of Obama-era decisions to withdraw certain areas of the OCS in Alaska and the Atlantic Cost from leasing.
  • A directive to the Department of Interior (DOI) to consider revising the schedule of proposed oil and gas lease sales in Western Gulf of Mexico, Central Gulf of Mexico, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, Mid-Atlantic, and South Atlantic to that those schedules include annual lease sales to the maximum extent permitted by law.
  • A directive to the Department of Commerce to refrain from designating or expanding any National Marine Sanctuary, unless the action “includes a timely, full accounting from the Department of the Interior of any energy or mineral resource potential in the designated area,” and to review designations of National Marine Sanctuaries and National Marine Monuments established or expanded in the last decade and report back on “the opportunity costs associated with potential energy and mineral exploration and production” in those areas.
  • A directive to DOI to reconsider final and proposed rules intended to mitigate the environmental effects of offshore drilling, including the well control rule, the proposed offshore air rule, and the offshore arctic drilling rule.
  • A directive for DOI and Commerce to undertake expedited considerations of incidental harassment authorizations, incidental take permits, and seismic survey permits.

As we have written about Executive Orders before, while a clear message of the Administration’s goals and priorities, sweeping Executive Orders such as this one must follow existing laws including due process requirements for rescinding or creating new regulations. This is why most of Trump’s executive orders contain a “to the maximum extent provided by law”, making their actual impact hard to gage. Of particular relevance to this EO is the provision that the DOI revoke Obama-era withdrawals of areas of the Atlantic and Arctic from OCS leasing. A plain reading of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OCSLA) makes clear that the act does not allow revocation of prior withdrawn areas. This directive, if implemented, will certainly be the subject of legal challenges, much as the immigration ban EO has been struck down as unconstitutional by the US Court of Appeals.

Still, these sorts of orders spell out the direction of the Trump Administration, and the pressure he is exerting on agencies such as National Marine Fisheries Service, DOI, and others. It is imperative that our Congressional champions step up and oppose these actions. Thankfully, our region has supported some of the strongest Ocean Champions around:

U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-6th Dist.) have reintroduced a bill that would ban offshore oil and gas drilling in the Atlantic Ocean (the COAST Act).

Congressman LoBiondo, (R-2nd Dist), introduced legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer (VA-08) that would halt permits for seismic airgun blasting (exploration for oil and gas) along the Atlantic seaboard. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) introduced legislation to suspend East Coast offshore drilling for a decade.

On May 26, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-NJ), Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the “Atlantic Seismic Airgun Protection Act’’ a bill to ban oil, gas and methane hydrate-related seismic activities in the Atlantic Ocean. The bill will prohibit the use of seismic airgun blasting -- a disruptive and potentially economically damaging method of surveying offshore oil and gas reserves -- in the North Atlantic, Mid Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Straits of Florida.  

Furthermore, a letter signed by more than than 100 U.S. House members urged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to keep both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts off limits to oil and gas drilling. The lawmakers, led in part by Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd Dist.), acted after President Donald Trump issued an executive order asking Zinke to review the existing 2017-2022 five-year plan that kept drilling away from both coasts.

While coastal businesses, citizens, and communities organize, and elected officials gather the votes necessary to pass critical protections for our region, the Interior Department will continue to evaluate applications from six companies seeking 8 permits to conduct geological and geophysical activities in the Atlantic Ocean. In January, then-President Barack Obama's administration refused to approve these applications.

Essentially, these seismic blasting permits are being considered and pushed forward by the Trump Administration even while the Atlantic has been removed from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s five-year plan for oil and gas development. The re-inclusion of the Atlantic into the five year plan will be required to go through a lengthy notice and comment and environmental review process.

It is essential that we keep up the fight. Keep an eye on our social media and webpage over the coming days and weeks, as we continue to monitor the situation. The thousands of coastal economies that depend upon a clean and healthy Atlantic Ocean are incompatible with oil and gas drilling anywhere in our region. Oil does not respect state boundaries. Seismic blasting to discover these reserves does not discriminate between a dolphin from New Jersey and a whale from Florida. Call your congressional representatives TODAY, and tell them that offshore oil and gas drilling anywhere in the Atlantic is not acceptable!


President Trump released a proposed budget for FY 2018, which includes significant cuts to climate change and clean energy programs. Some of the largest cuts include:
  • A 31% reduction in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (from $8.2 to $5.6 billion)
  • A 68% reduction in funding to the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (from $2 billion to $636 million)
  • A 48% reduction in funding to EPA’s Office of Science and Technology: Clean Air and Global Climate Change program (from $259 to $135 million)
  • A 35% reduction in funding to EPA’s Environmental Programs and Management: Clean Air and Global Climate Change (from $474 to $310 million)

This budget, if adopted, would be an absolute disaster for environmental and public health. It would cut EPA by nearly a third (clean water, clean air, chemical and toxic substance regulations, contaminated site clean up). The U.S. Department of the Interior would be cut by 11 percent (Federally managed land and water, National Parks, Fish and Wildlife), the Army Corps of Engineers would see its funding shrink by 16 percent (dredging, beach nourishment and erosion control, navigable waterways) and spending at the U.S. Department of Energy would drop 18 percent (excluding nuclear security).

As for the EPA, Trump proposes a 31 percent cut—by closing regional offices, reducing enforcement, and eliminating more than 50 programs, including Energy Star and restoration funds for the Great Lakes, Puget Sound, and the Chesapeake Bay, as well as zero funding for any climate science related work at EPA. There would also be a 30 percent cut for contaminated site clean up (New Jersey is #1 in the Country for most # of contaminated sites).

The Trump Budget proposes the selling off of half of the nation's emergency oil reserve – called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil drilling, and end offshore drilling revenue sharing with Gulf Coast states, proposals they say would raise nearly $23.5 billion over 10 years. This is the only way the administration can claim that their budget (tax cuts for the highest income brackets, cuts to most everything else) would balance the budget. Selling off half of the SPR represents the biggest source of new revenue in the energy and environment sections of Trump's budget.
The SPR currently holds about 688 million barrels of oil, and selling half that would raise about $16.5 billion by 2027, the White House estimates. Staggering. Trump tax cuts are being funded by the literal selling off of our national heritage and resources, the cutting of key environmental public health programs, and the dismantling of public health and social programs.

Trump Administration – Industry over Science, Denial over Truth

As the Trump Administration has made clear over and again, science based decision making, aimed at preventing the worst of climate change impacts, at protecting human health from chemical and toxic substances, and at protecting ecosystems, have been sacrificed in favor of short term profits for fossil fuel companies and other powerful industry forces. Both the White House and other Federal Agencies have been found censoring climate and scientific data on their websites, within their regulatory processes, and in reports and associated press releases – as if closing one’s eyes would change reality.

Most recently, a paper published documenting the risk of flooding in coastal communities was edited by Department of Interior employees on behalf of the Trump Administration to remove language referencing climate change.  “While we were approving the news release, they had an issue with one or two of the lines [that] had to do with climate change and sea-level rise,” said one of the study’s coauthors, Sean Vitousek, a research assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. At the request of the Trump administration, the following line was removed from the press release: “Global climate change drives sea-level rise, increasing the frequency of coastal flooding.” Regardless of what language is used, climate change is real, it is here, and it is putting our communities at risk.

From the tweaking of public relations messages, to the elimination of basic climate and science data on government websites, news of this sort has become startling routine;. Even scarier however is how fossil fuel companies are now able to exert enormous influence into regulatory actions through the inclusion of industry derived data in regulatory analyses and decision-making. Recently, Bloomberg Business has reported that “EPA political leadership is occasionally inserting new data and other information into public statements without final review from career policy specialists. . . “. EPA is also moving to delay, and eventually eliminate environmental regulations such as requirements for power plants to use the most up-to-date technology to remove heavy metals — including lead, arsenic, mercury and other pollutants — from their wastewater; or in implementing regulations designed to curb carbon emissions from highways; one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, the primary driver of climate change and a proven health risk. These actions are not based and while they may be good for a short-term shareholder profit bump, the long term consequences will be borne by the public.

Navigable Channels and Sinking Marsh

For years, coastal communities in our region have struggled with silted in back bay and coastal channels, and the cost of dredging and disposing of the dredged material. COA has been engaged in region-wide dredged material management for decades, and has closely monitored the advent of newer innovations such as “thin layer placement” and “living shorelines” – construction activities that utilize dredge material to build up drowning marsh or eroded shorelines. These projects have the potential to allow dredging of channels to take place and provide close by disposal options that also serve an environmental benefit. However, they are not silver bullets to our dredge material management issues – the amount of material able to be used by reuse projects is dwarfed by the amount needing to be dredged, and a critical eye is needed to ensure proper siting and design of both the dredging and the reuse projects, thorough sediment testing, and appropriate vetting of the reuse project to ensure it stands independent of the dredging project. COA is currently reviewing a rather large beneficial reuse project that would take over 150,000 cubic yards of sediment and deposit it on marshes and at shoreline edges in order to create a more resilient coastal ecosystem. We will continue to review these types of projects to ensure they meet these standards.

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