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Critics Oppose Executive Order Opening New Areas To Offshore Leases


President Trump's executive order to try and expand offshore drilling has been welcomed by oil and gas industry representatives who say it could increase energy production by as much as a million barrels of oil each day. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, there is bipartisan opposition in Congress and also some coastal states.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The executive order doesn't open new areas to offshore drilling yet. It does, however, aim to remove restrictions on drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic put in place by President Obama, and it instructs the secretary of the Interior to review decisions on offshore leases made by the Obama administration. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has already signed an order to begin that process. In Houston yesterday for an industry conference on offshore drilling, he said the Trump administration wants to increase oil production beyond the goal of energy independence to what he called energy dominance.


RYAN ZINKE: If we as a country want to have national security, an economy, which we all desperately need, then dominance is what America needs.

ALLEN: The executive order could open new areas to offshore leases, including tracts in the Atlantic off the Virginia and Carolina coasts. The industry has long sought access to leases there. But before it can make those leases available, the Trump administration has to overcome significant opposition, including from members of the president's own party. South Carolina Republican Congressman Mark Sanford has already moved to challenge the order. Sanford introduced a bill to block drilling in the Atlantic, saying it's necessary to protect his state's economy. He released this recorded statement.


MARK SANFORD: Tourism is one of the great drivers of not just our coast, but frankly many coasts up and down the Atlantic.

ALLEN: The bipartisan opposition isn't just in Congress. More than 120 communities along the Atlantic coast have adopted resolutions opposing offshore drilling. Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson says there's a simple reason why there's strong bipartisan opposition to drilling off his state's Atlantic and Gulf coasts.


BILL NELSON: This is paradise. We don't want to mess it up.

ALLEN: A decade ago, Nelson and Florida Republican Senator Mel Martinez brokered a deal that placed one key area, the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off limits to offshore drilling. That area is protected and not currently threatened by Trump's executive order. But with a friendly administration in charge, the industry is emboldened and clearly eyeing the eastern Gulf. At a time when low gas prices have dampened enthusiasm for drilling in the Arctic, the eastern Gulf is attractive because it's close to existing wells and the industry's infrastructure. Yesterday, an American Petroleum Institute executive said exploring for oil there is, quote, "critical to our national security."

The moratorium runs out in 2022. Nelson has filed legislation to extend it another five years. Yesterday, several Republicans in Florida's congressional delegation signed on to the House version. In Florida, tourism is a $60 billion a year industry. Nelson recalled what happened to hotels, restaurants and other businesses on Florida's Gulf Coast seven years ago after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.


NELSON: All the way down the Gulf Coast, all the way south to Marco Island, they lost a whole year, a season.

ALLEN: Yesterday, drilling opponents got some help from the Defense Department. The military conducts weapons testing and training exercises in that part of the Gulf. In a letter to a Florida congressman, a Pentagon official said maintaining a moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf is essential. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.


As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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