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Trump administration moves to expand drilling off Atlantic Coast

The Trump administration unveiled its plan on Thursday to significantly expand offshore oil and gas drilling, including along the Atlantic Coast, a proposal that drew sharp criticism from Democrats and some Republicans.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the administration’s five-year plan would open up 90 percent of U.S. offshore reserves to drilling — representing the largest expansion in the nation’s history. The proposal would increase drilling off the coast of California, in the Arctic and along the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Florida.

“We’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America, particularly on offshore,” Zinke said.

But the plan, which Zinke described as an opening proposal in what is likely to be a long negotiation, prompted swift disapproval — including from several Republicans representing coastal states. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, reiterated his opposition and directed Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, to investigate a lawsuit.

“Such drilling would create too great a risk to the health, safety, and welfare of Maryland citizens, communities, and businesses,” Hogan wrote to Frosh. “It must be opposed to the fullest extent that is legally possible.”

Frosh already had threatened to sue in April, when President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order requiring the Department of the Interior to review Obama-era prohibitions on expanded drilling. Frosh said in an interview that his office is continuing to review the Trump administration’s moves and that Thursday’s announcement “certainly makes [litigation] more likely.”

Frosh described the action as a “stunningly bad decision,” but also noted the plan is broad, and in its early stages.

“They have to jump through a lot of different hoops,” he said. “We’ll see whether they manage to get through those hoops.”

The announcement was the latest from the Trump administration to split the state’s two leading Republicans, Hogan and Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County — both of whom face reelection this year.

Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, said he supports expanded drilling if it can be done in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.

"You can't underestimate the geopolitical significance of America being the world's largest energy producer,” Harris said in a statement.

The proposal contemplates 47 lease sales between 2019 to 2024 — including 19 off the coast of Alaska, a dozen in the Gulf of Mexico and nine in the Atlantic. Of those, three would be sold in the Mid-Atlantic region, the department said.

It comes just days after the administration announced separate plans to roll back regulations that were put in place following the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 that killed 11 workers and spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and longtime Trump ally, said Thursday he opposes the leasing plan.

The leasing proposal would replace one the Obama administration adopted in its final days, guiding offshore drilling activity through 2022. That plan left open 11 leasing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico and one off the coast of Alaska, but rejected plans to open the Atlantic and Arctic to drilling.

Late in his second term, President Barack Obama used a 64-year-old law to withdraw vast portions of the Atlantic Coast from drilling. His administration said the restrictions would be permanent, but the law has never been challenged and likely would be central to litigation opposing Trump’s move.

Even if the Trump administration’s plan were approved, drilling in the Atlantic would be years if not decades off, analysts said.

The administration could begin selling leases to drill in the Atlantic and other closed-off areas as early as 2019 if the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management speeds through the planning process this year. But there are many steps and hurdles that could block or scale back the plans, including requirements for multiple stages of public comment before the sale of leases can commence — let alone before drilling could begin.

It’s also not clear that there’s sufficient demand to expand drilling in the Atlantic. Offshore drilling opponents say they expect a surplus of oil and relatively low fuel prices to reduce that demand, but nonetheless vowed to fight to prevent new drilling areas from being opened.

“No president has ever proposed a lease sale this expansive,” said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director for Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy group. “We don’t think this is something to be proud of.”

The energy industry welcomed the proposal, framing it as an opportunity to secure long-term U.S. energy independence.

“The administration’s new offshore leasing plan will give our nation the ability to access our vital energy resources to help meet growing domestic and global demand while helping to supply affordable energy for consumers, manufacturers and businesses,” said Erik Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement.

Drilling off the U.S. Atlantic coast was abandoned decades ago, but the Obama administration had proposed opening millions of acres from Virginia to Georgia. Obama later reversed course following an outcry from environmentalists, including in Maryland, concerned about the effect a spill would have on beaches and the fishing industry.

Although the Trump plan doesn’t deal with the Chesapeake Bay directly, advocates say half of the estuary’s water comes from the Atlantic — not to mention much of its life. Blue crabs, for instance, begin their life floating in and out of the mouth of the bay.

“The waters off the mouth of the Chesapeake are as much a part of the bay system as all the fresh-water rivers that feed it,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said in a statement.

“We are beginning to see progress in Bay restoration,” he said. “Now is not the time to put that progress at risk.”

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