Kudos to Gov. Larry Hogan for expressing his strong opposition to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s plan to treat the nation’s continental shelf as a door prize to Exxon Mobil Corp. and other oil companies. The Trump administration proposal released this week would open up much of what has been protected off-shore waters to oil and gas exploration, a move that is not only deeply unpopular along the Atlantic seaboard but also makes little economic sense.
A Hogan administration spokesman not only expressed the governor’s deep disdain for such a ludicrous idea but also said the Republican governor has directed Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, to warm up his legal bullpen for some power-pitching in federal court. That’s something one imagines Mr. Frosh, long one of Maryland’s leading environmental voices and an emerging Trump administration opponent, is only too happy to do. Such bipartisan, pro-Maryland teamwork is not only welcome, it underscores how far the state’s incumbent 1st District congressman is out of step with his constituents. Rep. Andy Harris says he supports the expanded drilling if it can be done in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. Such a position strongly suggests he’s never heard of the Deepwater Horizon, the drilling rig that was heralded as safe — up until it exploded and caused the largest oil spill in human history in 2010.
Wasn’t it just last year that Mr. Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, was so fearful that wind turbines located two dozen miles off the coast might be seen on clear days on the distant horizon by Ocean City tourists that he was offering an amendment in the House to force two off-shore wind power projects so far away from land that they would be economically non-viable? What happened to the fellow who claimed to be looking out for the tourism industry despite the thousands of jobs and $1.8 billion in investment the off-shore clean-power wind farms represented? Another Deepwater Horizon would have a lot more impact on Maryland tourism that the prospect of tiny turbines on the horizon (which, by the way, might actually boost Ocean City visitor numbers, experts say).
The good news about the Trump administration’s plan for expanded drilling is that not only is it not yet finalized (so, at least theoretically, strong public opposition might yet have some impact on the proposal) but that oil market conditions are such that energy companies are unlikely to invest large sums in potential Atlantic Ocean drill sites. Oil prices have rebounded some, but they remain relatively low by historic benchmarks thanks to fracking and other advances. President Donald Trump may see this as yet another chance to reverse Barack Obama’s pro-environment policies, but it’s entirely possible that the Interior Department plan will itself be reversed, if not in 2021 then perhaps earlier if Democrats gain control of Congress this year. Thus, dragging the matter into court — at least until voters can have their say at the voting booth — looks like a feasible response.
Of course, the big oil companies and their political allies will try to tempt Americans into believing that huge riches (and tax revenue) await if off-shore drilling is allowed to proceed. First, there are wide-ranging opinions about how much oil is available, particularly along the Atlantic. But second, if the goal is energy independence, off-shore oil isn’t the best way to go about it, particularly given its high cost and risks. Far better is to reduce consumption through conservation while investing more in clean, renewable energy. That approach not only protects Ocean City and the Chesapeake Bay from oil spills, it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions that pose a serious threat to public health and national security as the effects of climate change worsen.
Maryland is hardly alone in its opposition to off-shore drilling. Governors from New Jersey’s Chris Christie to Florida’s Rick Scott, both Republicans and Trump allies, incidentally, are just as forcefully opposed as Governor Hogan. So why follow this path? One strong possibility is that money talks and big money talks especially loudly. Just last month, the oil companies received an enormous — but little discussed — tax break from Republicans in Congress who chose, as part of their recent tax overhaul, not to continue a 9-cents-per barrel tax on oil to finance the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. That decision has saved the industry $500 million per year but leaves ordinary Americans on the hook should the fund, which finances government’s response to major oil spills on land or water, ever dry up. And given the Trump administration’s lax approach to environmental regulations, that’s likely to happen sooner rather than later.