Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made an unexpected announcement Tuesday evening on Twitter: Florida, he had decided after meeting with that state’s Republican governor, would be exempted from the Trump administration’s new plan to open most U.S. federal waters to oil and gas exploration and drilling.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” Zinke said in a statement posted shortly after the tweet, which had included a picture of Zinke chatting with Gov. Rick Scott at Tallahassee’s airport. “I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

The announcement had governors of other coastal states scrambling to get their own drilling exemptions: Republicans Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Chris Christie of New Jersey. Democrats Andrew Cuomo of New York and John Carney of Delaware.

By week’s end, nearly every coastal state currently protected from drilling had registered its opposition, and Maine’s entire congressional delegation had signed on to a bipartisan bill to prevent the plan from going ahead at all.

But Gov. Paul LePage, alone among the governors of the 16 contiguous states potentially affected by the Trump administration’s plan, has lobbied to have offshore oil and gas exploration leases allowed almost everywhere, a position that will likely undermine the congressional delegation’s effort to remove areas offshore from Maine from consideration.

LePage, who chairs the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, an alliance of five governors to support “safe responsible expansion” of offshore oil, gas, and renewable energy developments, was the lead signatory of an Aug. 17 letter asking Zinke to include all unleased areas of the U.S. continental shelf in its new drilling lease program, a position the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management adopted Jan. 4.

LePage’s spokeswoman, Julie Rabinowitz, said via email that the governor “supports BOEM’s approach of beginning with a broad area in the initial proposed plan in order to allow public analysis of all available resources” but with “the expectation that significant regions will be excluded from the final plan based on environmental sensitivity, fishery industry concern, tourism value or other areas of specific concern.”

“The governor believes in a balanced approach that places a priority on protecting our environment and traditional industries, but does not close the door on jobs and lower energy costs for Maine people,” she added.

LePage’s openness to exploration off the coast will make it hard for Maine to get a Florida-like exemption from the plan, said Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, the nonprofit that helped spearhead the 1982 moratorium on drilling in New England waters that Zinke intends to overturn.

“The role of the governor will play a big part in what happens with the Interior Department’s proposal,” Mahoney said. “Secretary Zinke has said he will speak to every coastal governor, and so far he’s already exempted Florida based on talking with their governor.”

Mahoney believes the plan is a terrible one for Maine, whose tourism and fishing industries would be put at risk if drilling operations commenced in and around the Gulf of Maine. “This is already one of the most environmentally challenged bodies of water on the face of the Earth,” he said. “Why would we even want to undertake additional risk for something that would bring no economic benefit to our region?”

New England congressional effort to block drilling

Maine’s two U.S. senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, announced Thursday in a joint statement that they are supporting a bipartisan bill to bar offshore drilling in New England.

“With our environment so closely tied to the vitality of Maine’s economy, we cannot risk the health of our ocean on a shortsighted proposal that could impact Maine people for generations,” the senators said in announcing the New England Coastal Protection Act.

The Senate bill has the backing of all 10 senators from coastal New England, and its House counterpart is backed by every House member from those five states, including both Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree and Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine. “I am opposed to oil drilling off the coast of our State of Maine,” Poliquin said in a statement. “So much of our state’s economy and tens of thousands of Maine jobs along our coast depend on our marine and tourism industries.”

On Friday, Pingree described the administration’s plan as “one of the most outrageous and irresponsible proposals to come out of the Trump Administration.”

“Our lobstermen already have enough to worry about with warming waters and ocean acidification – do we really need to add a potential oil spill to that list?” Pingree said in a statement. “You shouldn’t have to be political chums with President Trump, like Florida Governor Rick Scott, to have your state protected.”

Drilling would focus on Gulf’s outer entrance

If oil and gas companies are allowed into New England waters, they would likely focus their attention on areas near the mouth of the Gulf of Maine and on the eastern shoulder of Georges Bank.

The Interior Department’s inventory of areas likely to have recoverable oil and gas resources indicates that the interior of the Gulf of Maine is devoid of geologically promising areas. “Based on the information that is available,” Bureau of Ocean Energy Management spokeswoman Tracey Moriarty said via email, “we assess … zero undiscovered, technically recoverable resources” in the area.

A 2016 report from the bureau also indicates that much of Georges Bank, where test wells were drilled in 1980 and 1981, is also unlikely to have commercially exploitable oil and gas deposits, though the eastern section has the possibility of modest resources.

The most promising areas are just to the south and southeast of Georges, where the continental shelf slopes away into the deep. These areas are close to Georges Bank – traditionally New England’s greatest fishing grounds – and one of the principal oceanographic entrances to the Gulf of Maine, the Northeast Channel, where Atlantic waters are pulled into the gulf’s counterclockwise gyre, or ocean-basin current. What the potential environmental risks of drilling would be for Georges and the gulf are impossible to assess without knowing where and at what depth actual wells are drilled.

These areas are located adjacent to Canadian parcels where Shell, BP, and the Norwegian energy giant Statoil and Shell were granted exploratory leases in late 2015. The nearest of these parcels is 225 miles southeast of Bar Harbor but alongside the eastern flank of Georges Bank.

The Interior Department will hold a public hearing on the proposal at the Augusta Civic Center from 3 to 7 p.m. Jan. 22 as part of its 60-day public comment period on the proposal.

Local stakeholders, Zinke told reporters Jan. 4, will “have a voice” in the final plan.

Colin Woodard can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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