A top US official told a group of fossil fuel industry leaders that the Trump administration will soon issue a proposal making large portions of the Atlantic available for oil and gas development, and said that it is easier to work on such priorities because Donald Trump is skilled at sowing “absolutely thrilling” distractions, according to records of a meeting obtained by the Guardian.
Joe Balash, the assistant secretary for land and minerals management, was speaking to companies in the oil exploration business at a meeting of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, or IAGC, last month.
“One of the things that I have found absolutely thrilling in working for this administration,” said Balash,“is the president has a knack for keeping the attention of the media and the public focused somewhere else while we do all the work that needs to be done on behalf of the American people.”
In its drive to boost domestic fossil fuel production, the Trump administration has spearheaded an effort in recent years to open undeveloped federal waters to oil and gas drilling, despite fierce opposition from coastal residents, politicians and environmental groups. In 2018 it issued a draft of its plan, and in the coming weeks, the interior department is planning to officially propose a five-year program for oil and gas leasing in federally-controlled coastal waters, up to 200 nautical miles and more from the shoreline.
Already the Trump administration is moving to permit a handful of private companies to start using seismic surveys in the Atlantic, a controversial practice in which air guns shoot loud blasts into ocean waters to identify oil deposits. Some scientific studies suggest that seismic surveys can harm or potentially kill marine creatures, including dolphins, whales, fish and zooplankton.
The seismic surveys could commence as early as this year, in coastal waters anywhere from Cape May, New Jersey, to Cape Canaveral, Florida, but first they require final approval from the interior department.
“I will tell you we wouldn’t work really really hard to get the [Atlantic] seismic permits out, if it was an area that wasn’t going to be available”, said Balash, who helps oversee the the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the agency responsible for permitting the Atlantic seismic permits and crafting the five-year leasing plan. The interior department did not make him available to the Guardian for comment.
Public records obtained by the Guardian show that the Trump administration has been in regular communication with key players in the offshore industry, while conservationists and coastal communities say their voices have been ignored.
All told, a handful of prominent offshore drilling proponents – such as the International Association of Geophysical Contractors and the National Ocean Policy Coalition – held more than thirty calls or meetings with key Trump political appointees, including the former interior secretary Ryan Zinke and assistant secretary Balash, between early 2017 and the summer of 2018.
Top interior aide Katharine MacGregor, who for much of her tenure at the department helped oversee the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, communicated at least six times with proponents of Atlantic drilling in 2017, for example.
In one instance, she traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the fall of 2017 to speak to the National Ocean Industries Association. Its board members representatives of some of the biggest offshore drillers in the world, including BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron.
The interior department asserts that the agency is open to hearing from all parties.“ When asked for a meeting, the department’s appointees try to make ourselves available for all of our stakeholders,” said spokesperson Faith Vander Voort, “including those representing the environment and coastal communities, and we invite any stakeholder to meet with us if they have an issue they wish to discuss.”
The close ties between the interior department and the offshore industry has frustrated scientists, business owners and government officials who oppose the push to open the Atlantic to drilling and exploration and say they are not being adequately consulted.
“We have 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 42,000 businesses and 500,000 that have registered their opposition to offshore drilling and exploration in the Atlantic,” said Vicki Clark, a representative of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, a coalition of small businesses, commercial fishing families and others along the eastern seaboard. “And yet, big oil has more influence over this administration.”
A large bipartisan group of congressional representatives have also come out against drilling in the Atlantic, as have Democratic and Republican governors across the East Coast. “Opposition to drilling and testing in the Atlantic is as close to universal as anything will ever get,” said Ben Cahoon, the Republican mayor of Nags Head, a small town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “We are trying to get our message across as much as we can, but it seems pretty clear [the administration] doesn’t want to hear from us.”
Gail Adams, the vice-president of communications and external affairs at IAGC, the group that hosted Joe Balash at its conference in February, said research showing the air guns to be harmful to marine life is wrong. “Unfortunately, the information that is disseminated is not accurate.”
She added that “more than 50 years of extensive surveying and scientific research indicate that the risk of direct physical injury to marine mammals is extremely low, and currently there is no scientific evidence demonstrating biologically significant negative impacts on marine life.”
Many prominent marine scientists disagree.
“The science, as far as we are concerned, is robust,” said Howard Rosenbaum, a senior scientist for the New York Aquarium and the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants program. “Introducing this level of noise into the north Atlantic is of great concern for whales and other marine animals.”
At his speech before the IAGC, Balash hinted very strongly that he stood on the oil industry’s side, saying it played an “important role” in the “value-adding process of looking for and producing hydrocarbon reserves”.
“We have been working aggressively to put America on track to achieve the president’s vision for energy dominance,” he told his audience.