Interior Dept. Delays Its Plan to Open U.S. Coastline to Drilling

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday confirmed that it will likely delay the release of a long-awaited plan that had been expected to open most of the nation’s coastline for offshore oil drilling, pending the final outcome of a recent court decision that blocks drilling off the Alaskan coast.

The delay appears to be an acknowledgment that the court decision is a significant setback for what President Trump has called his policy of “energy dominance” — an effort to rapidly expand oil and gas drilling across the country.

The reason given for the delay was a March decision by a federal judge in Alaska to reinstate an Obama-era ban on Arctic drilling. “Given the recent court decision, the Department is simply evaluating all of its options to determine the best pathway to accomplish the mission entrusted to it by the President,” a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, Molly Block, wrote in an email.

The delay was reported by The Wall Street Journal, quoting the Interior Department’s new secretary, David Bernhardt, as saying, “By the time the court rules, that may be discombobulating to our plan,” adding, “What if you guess wrong?” in reference to the uncertain outcome of the legal appeals process.

The delay is the latest legal stumble in Mr. Trump’s effort to roll back environmental protections and increase fossil fuel production. Experts in environmental law estimate that, in its quest to quickly undo existing environmental protections, the administration has now lost about 40 cases in federal courts.

In following Mr. Trump’s directive to expand offshore oil and gas drilling to almost the entire United States coastline, the Interior Department released a draft plan last year and was expected to release a final version this year. Oil industry lobbyists and Republicans on Capitol Hill who have worked closely with the administration on crafting the plan said earlier this year that they expected the final plan to be released this spring.

The draft plan called for drilling off nearly the entire United States coastline. But the March 30 decision by Judge Sharon L. Gleason of the United States District Court for the District of Alaska concluded that a ban by President Obama on about 120 million acres of the Arctic Ocean and about 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic “will remain in full force and effect unless and until revoked by Congress.” She wrote that an April 2017 executive order by Mr. Trump revoking the drilling ban “is unlawful, as it exceeded the president’s authority.”

Environmental groups cheered Thursday’s delay.

“Every single governor from Maine to Florida and from Washington to California oppose offshore drilling off their coast,” said Collin O’Mara, president of National Wildlife Federation. “Republican and Democrat alike.”

The oil industry expressed optimism that the legal case would be resolved quickly and that the plan could then be finalized.

“We are hopeful that an appeal of this case will move quickly and that we can proceed with the important work of exploring for America’s offshore resources without unnecessary delay,” said Erik Milito, a vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for oil companies.

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