Federal waters off Virginia and other areas of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans — including marine sanctuaries — could be back in play for offshore drilling just months after they were removed "indefinitely" from possible oil and natural gas leasing.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order Friday to implement his "America-First Offshore Energy Strategy" aimed at opening millions of acres of federal waters for energy development. It seeks to reverse Barack Obama's move in the waning days of his presidency to protect those areas from mineral exploration and development under the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act.
Trump is also directing the Department of the Interior to review Obama's 2017-2022 Outer Continental Oil and Gas leasing program, which removed large portions of the Atlantic from Virginia to the Florida border from potential lease sales. That plan was finalized in March 2016 after years of review of the best available science and more than a million public comments.
In Friday's signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room, Trump called it a "great day for American workers."
"Today, we're unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs," Trump said. "The federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production. And when they say closed, they mean closed.
"We're opening it up," he said.
The move was welcomed by the oil and natural gas industries and others who believe it will lead to more jobs and greater energy independence, but slammed by conservation groups and East Coast business coalition and tourism interests as an assault on vulnerable marine environments and coastal economies.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said in a statement Friday that the Pentagon and NASA have also long expressed "serious reservations about the potential impacts of energy exploration and development" off Virginia.
The U.S. Navy conducts military exercises in the Atlantic, while NASA launches rockets over the ocean from Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore.
"It would be inappropriate and reckless to reverse that decision without strong assurances from the Department of Defense and NASA that their concerns have been addressed and fully mitigated," Warner said.
And without a fair revenue-sharing agreement with the federal government, he said, offshore development would be a "complete nonstarter."
Sen. Tim Kaine noted that Hampton Roads residents have also opposed offshore drilling, particularly those in Virginia Beach, which relies heavily on tourism. Scientists at Old Dominion University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science "have identified troubling trends in the rate of sea level rise ... and the frequency of extreme storms and floods, driven in large part by climate change from fossil fuel use."
"Based on these factors," Kaine said, "I now believe that the risks of Atlantic drilling outweigh the rewards."
U.S. Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott said he was "disappointed" in Trump's order, which comes a week after the seventh anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in which an offshore oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 crewmen and triggered the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
He noted that Trump's order would reassess protections for fragile deep-sea coral canyons in the Atlantic, including Norfolk and Baltimore canyons off Virginia.
"These unique habitats host a vast array of marine life," Scott said in a statement, "and offer opportunities for research, conservation and recreation. It is critical that we protect these areas, and it remains to be seen whether the president even has the authority to withdraw protections for these areas."
Jayni Hein, policy director at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, likewise questioned Trump's authority to override those protections.
"Under the relevant statute," Hein said in a statement, "President Trump does not have the power to rescind President Obama's withdrawal of certain offshore areas from drilling."
Section 12(a) of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which Obama used to protect 3.8 million acres from Virginia to New England and 115 million acres in the U.S. Arctic, doesn't explicitly permit future presidents to reverse the withdrawal of offshore areas from future leasing. At the time, the Interior Department said the area would be withdrawn indefinitely.
In December, 15 coral canyons from Virginia to New England and their surrounding seabeds were also designated the Frank R. Lautenberg Deep Sea Coral Protection Area, or the largest protection area in U.S. Atlantic waters.
National environmental groups such as Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council say they're preparing to file a lawsuit challenging Trump's order.
But a national oil and natural gas trade group said the country's energy future depends on offshore development.
Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council in Richmond, applauded Trump's action for the jobs and economic growth he believes it will bring to the state and the region. The council is a division of API, or the American Petroleum Institute.
"With the existing port, infrastructure and wide variety of maritime industries like shipbuilding and engineering," Morin said, "Hampton Roads can help strengthen our national security and fuel the energy our nation demands."
Estimates are that the mid-Atlantic region of the Outer Continental Shelf holds 2.41 billion barrels of oil and 24.63 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, Morin said.
Environmental groups counter that more jobs lie in developing renewable energies.
"Coastal business leaders oppose offshore drilling in the Atlantic because it's a job killer, not a job creator," said Jacqueline Savitz, senior vice president for U.S. oceans at Oceana in Washington, D.C.
Expanding offshore drilling "would be a huge, bad, stupid mistake," Savitz said. "I doubt President Trump would want to see Mar-a-Lago, or any of his other coastal resorts, covered in oil."
Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said drilling off Virginia poses unacceptable risks to the bay, and the economic impact from a spill "could be huge, hurting commercial watermen, recreational fishing and tourism."
At the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, Director Kate Addleson warned that drilling in the Atlantic "will ensure a disaster for our coasts."
Michael Town of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters called Trump's order "his latest attack on the environment (that) has put one of Virginia's largest economies at severe risk."
And on Friday members of the Business Alliance to Protect the Atlantic Coast planned a rally at the Virginia Beach oceanfront to protest Trump's order. According to founding member Laura Habr, the alliance represents 41,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families on the East Coast who oppose offshore drilling.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said the review of potential offshore drilling sites under Obama's five-year energy plan will take several years.
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892