Fuel the American economy with offshore energy

Andrew Langer

Some parting gift: On his way out the White House door, President Barack Obama banned seismic surveying in the Atlantic Ocean from New England south to Virginia.

It was a fitting end to eight years of a presidential administration dedicated to frustrating the development of domestic energy resources at every turn. Fortunately, indications are that President Donald Trump will take a more welcoming view of the economic benefits of increased U.S. oil and gas production.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management handed down the ban in response to six separate applications to conduct seismic surveys in the Atlantic. These surveys are used to locate and create images of rock formations, a key step in the search for underground oil and gas reserves below the ocean floor.

In denying the applications, BOEM claimed that the surveys would be disruptive and could harm marine life — a weak justification based on scanty evidence at best. This, too, is part of a pattern of flimsy excuse-making for decisions that are really all about politics.

Last year, after the federal government spent months contemplating opening up areas of the Atlantic Ocean to offshore oil and gas leasing, the Obama administration decided instead to block all exploration in these areas for five years. The Department of Interior cited local opposition and “market dynamics” as the reason for the moratorium.

In December, Obama announced a permanent ban on offshore drilling in federal waters along the Atlantic Coast and in the Arctic Ocean, nearly 118 million acres in total. This was done, characteristically, by executive order, itself justified by the dubious application of a law dating back to 1953.

Obama clearly hoped for a successor who would agree with his anti-energy policies, including the ban on seismic surveys. When he didn’t get one, he moved to try to lock his preferences in past the expiration of his term.

His executive orders and agency rules banning drilling and surveying will require a pronounced effort to overturn, one likely to entail extensive litigation. The outgoing administration even boasted about how difficult if not impossible its anti-energy policies would be to undo.

But Trump has repeatedly expressed his intention to rev up American energy production. The effort to overturn the Obama restrictions is worth his time. What’s more, the new president will have the facts on his side.

First, the flimsy excuses: Contrary to the BOEM’s claims, seismic surveys are not harmful to marine life. In fact, they have been safely conducted along the U.S. coast for years. That’s because such surveys, highly regulated by government agencies, proceed only after extensive studies to determine what impact, if any, they will have on animal life.

The BOEM itself has admitted “there has been no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns used in geological and geophysical seismic activities adversely affecting marine animal populations or coastal communities.”

So, offshore development would do nothing to harm marine life. But it would unleash a wave of economic benefits. Currently, nearly 90 billion barrels of oil and 405 trillion cubic feet of gas are untapped. Leasing these areas for development would create 840,000 jobs, put $200 billion into the federal treasury, and ramp up domestic energy production by 3.5 billion barrels of oil a day.

What’s more, the need for new surveys is now acute. The last seismic survey conducted in the Atlantic Outer Continental shelf was three decades ago. Its findings constitute a baseline estimate of the amounts of oil in these waters.

Trump will have to end his predecessor’s war against fossil fuels and American energy production. A good place to start is to allow seismic surveys in potentially rich oil and gas areas off America’s coast.

Andrew Langer is president of the Institute for Liberty.