Editor's note: This article was updated on May 1 at 9:45 a.m. CST.
Just as many oil and gas industry executives were heading to Houston for the annual Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) this week, President Donald J. Trump may have given them their biggest discussion point when he signed the America First Offshore Energy Executive Order on April 28 to extend offshore oil and gas drilling to areas that have been off limits.
The Trump administration said the executive order is intended to boost U.S. domestic production and to reverse bans set by former President Barack Obama on drilling in areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans, as well as U.S. Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re opening it up ... Today we’re unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs,” Trump said as he signed the order.
During Obama's two terms in office, 424.6 million net acres were offered for lease offshore U.S., according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). That figure was slightly higher than the 421.7 million net acres of offshore leases were offered by during the administration of George W. Bush, according to BOEM.
Trump was flanked by members of Congress from coastal states and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is scheduled to address OTC on May 1.
"This order will cement our nation’s position as a global energy leader and foster energy security for the benefit of the American people, while ensuring that any such activity is safe and environmentally responsible,” Zinke said in a statement released shortly after the signing.
The America First Offshore Energy Executive Order directs Zinke to conduct a review of the current five-year development plan on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) for offshore oil and gas exploration as well as review regulations to streamline permitting for development and seismic research.
According to Zinke, federal leasing revenues in 2008 for the OCS were nearly $18 billion dollars. By contrast, in 2016, leasing revenues were approximately $2.8 billion. “That’s a drop of more than $15 billion that would otherwise go to the Treasury or toward funding important conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Historic Preservation Fund,” Zinke’s statement said.
However, revenues were higher in 2008 for oil and gas because prices were higher. In June 2008, average wellhead natural gas prices were $10.82, the highest recorded price, according to EIA.
The price of oil fell dramatically in 2008, but only after peaking at $147.30 in July 2008.
In 2016, offshore oil volumes on federal leases produced 94 million more barrels of oil than in 2008 (423.4 MMbbl vs. 329.3 MMbbl). However, despite a greater volume of production, the revenues are obviously different because of the downturn in commodity prices.
Zinke also said the executive order will help increase the nation’s energy independence. “I’ve spent a lot of time in countries across the world, and I can tell you with 100-percent certainty it is better to develop our energy here under reasonable regulations, rather than have it produced overseas under little or no regulations,” he said in his statement.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who was present at the signing, along with fellow Alaskan delegates U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and U.S. Rep. Don Young, said residents of the state “broadly support offshore development in the Arctic.”
“After the last administration spent eight years systematically closing off access to the Arctic, this executive order puts us back on track to explore and ultimately produce the prolific resources in that region,” Murkowski, who is chairman of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said in a statement. “And I strongly believe that over time, [the] order will provide substantial benefits by putting our state on a better path to create jobs, generate new revenues, refill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and strengthen our leadership in the Arctic.”
“Production is increasing in Alaska, and there are new oil finds throughout the state. Alaska is on the brink of leading our country into a new energy renaissance,” Sullivan added.
They said the executive order nullifies Obama’s indefinite withdrawal of nearly all of the Beaufort and Chukchi OCS leasing areas, increases the potential for leasing and creates more reasonable regulations since it requires the reconsideration and potential revision of the Arctic rule, the Well Control Rule and other regulations imposed by the previous administration.
Environment and energy experts at The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank, also weighed in.
“Although on-shore oil production has skyrocketed as a result of hydraulic fracturing, it remains critically important that the United States not take options off the table when it comes to providing affordable energy for Americans. More competition in the marketplace is good news for consumers who need lower gas prices at the pump,” the group said in a statement.
“Offshore drilling is a long process, taking approximately ten years before oil or natural gas is produced,” the statement continued. “The United States may be awash in oil for the time being, but the world population is expected to grow from 7.3 billion today to 8.5 billion in 2030, and 9.7 billion in 2050. We will need these resources in the future, which makes this policy a good long-term decision for our country.”
Environmental law experts made the media rounds following the announcement and questioned Trump’s authority to reverse Obama’s withdrawal from certain areas in the Arctic of Atlantic oceans, saying the matter will likely be decided in the courts.
Rob Verchick, an environmental law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, told The Washington Post that the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act has never been used to remove protections before and that the statute doesn’t allow it.
Environmental activists also weighed in with heavy criticism.
"Our ocean, waves and beaches are vital recreational, economic and ecological treasures that would be polluted by an increase in offshore oil drilling, regardless of whether or not there is a spill," said Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit grassroots organization. "With today's action, the Trump administration is putting the interests of the oil and gas lobby over the hundreds of communities, thousands of businesses and millions of citizens who rely on the ocean and coasts for their jobs and livelihoods."
Zinke sought to alleviate environmental concerns.
"Now, I understand people may be concerned about any environmental impact that development may have, and that’s a valid concern that the President and I share,” Zinke’s statement read. “The truth is we fully expect that during the review process we will find ways to improve our regulatory requirements that strengthen safety precautions. Good stewardship of our lands and waters and responsible offshore development are not mutually exclusive.”
Additional reporting by Darren Barbee, Hart Energy.