Congress

Expect offshore drilling to play role in next week’s Interior secretary confirmation

The increased focus all but assures the plan will be part of Bernhardt’s confirmation next Thursday

The Atlantic Ocean is seen adjacent to President Donald Trump's beachfront Mar-a-Lago resort, the day after Florida received an exemption from the Trump Administration's newly announced ocean drilling plan on Jan. 11, 2018, in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Democrats are pressuring acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to release the department’s updated plan for opening the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling, foreshadowing an increased focus on a proposal opposed by lawmakers of both parties.

In a letter sent Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, of New York, and 16 other Democratic senators asked Bernhardt to release details about the department’s draft five-year oil and gas leasing program for the Outer Continental Shelf, including which states will be included in the next version of the proposal.

The line of inquiry all but assures the plan will be a focus for Democrats during Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee next Thursday.

[Amid Corruption Charges, Zinke Is Leaving as Interior Secretary]

“Your decisions on this matter will significantly impact our nation’s coastal economy and ecosystems,” they wrote of the offshore drilling plan. “The American people deserve to know your plan for the Outer Continental Shelf before the Senate votes on your nomination.”

In 2018 the department proposed opening more than 90 percent of federal waters to fossil fuel exploration and extraction. The department’s second draft of the proposal may be released “in the coming weeks,” said Walter Cruickshank, acting director of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, at a March 6 House Natural Resources hearing.

Which areas are open to drilling could affect the chance that Bernhardt will get the majority needed for confirmation if the Democratic caucus holds firm against his nomination, as a number of Republican senators facing tough re-election races in 2020 are from states that could see the oil and gas industry setting up off their coasts.

[Grijalva: Natural Resources Panel Not Finished With Zinke Yet]

One Republican senator, Maine’s Susan Collins, voted against the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, a vote similarly contentious for environmentalists. Collins has also supported federal bans on drilling off Maine’s shore.

Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and David Perdue, of Georgia, could face pressure on the Bernhardt vote if Interior proposes opening their states’ coasts to drilling. The governors of South Carolina and Georgia, both Republicans, oppose the department doing so. North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, also expected to run for re-election in 2020, could face similar pressures from another coastal state.

There is also Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott. During his 2018 run for the Senate, Scott opposed opening his state’s coasts to offshore drilling. And when Interior first proposed opening its waters to extraction, the secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, tweeted that Florida would be exempted from the program, which he said was at Scott's request.

Zinke has since resigned, and Florida lawmakers appear to no longer believe they will be exempted. Last month the entire Florida House delegation, including Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz, wrote to Bernhardt urging him to “take formal action” to exempt the state from its offshore oil and gas leasing program.

“We urge you to exempt Florida’s coasts from any offshore drilling plans,” they wrote.

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