Coastal Protection: A Bipartisan Moment For Resistance?

By proposing to give the oil industry absolute priority over the rest of society, and open 90 percent of America’s coastal waters to oil drilling, the Trump Administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke run the risk of opening an entirely new environmental battle front – this time in a theater with a critical mass of Republican allies teed up to oppose the administration.

All the way back to the Reagan Administration in 1981, whenever Republican administrations have tried to force oil drilling down the throats of coastal communities outside already oil dependent regions like the Gulf of Mexico and parts of Alaska, those communities have fought back – whether red, purple or blue. And where local Republicans didn’t join the fight against coastal oil, they have paid a political price, as the once Republican sections of coastal California turned solidly blue most spectacularly demonstrate.

But no previous president has picked as big and broad a battle, or one likely to trigger more massive opposition – at a time when big oil’s national popular standing is lower than it has ever been. (For the first-time private polling shows that a majority of Americans think the disadvantages of relying on oil as an energy source exceed the advantages.) And none has done so with such cavalier indifference to offering at least a fig-leaf that the drilling would be carefully regulated and adequate resources guaranteed to clean up the inevitable spills.

For the Republicans, the politics of this (if not the fund-raising) look very bad. The first leasing under Zinke’s plan will not come until 2019 – just in time to inject the drilling issue into the presidential race, but not in time to reap any economic benefits from drilling investments. The entire intervening period will be filled with a host of procedural steps, environmental assessments, state and local legal challenges, all spiced up, most probably, with oil spills from existing drilling operations. This is a fantastic environment for a political mobilization. Presidentially Florida is clearly the prize target – but for the House and Senate the important geography is much broader.

We don’t actually need to wait for 2020 for the politics to play out. Leaving out Alaska and the Gulf Coast states, there are 31 Republican Congressional districts impacted by off-shore drilling ― mostly won in 2016 by relatively or moderately close margins. The coasts are purple or pink ― not scarlet. In 2018 mid-terms the Democrats need to gain only 24 seats to capture the House. A recent Cook Report listing the 27 most swing Republican House districts, tagged 17 in OCS impacted, anti-drilling geographies. If the OCS issue heats up enough to push additional, currently safe seeming coastal Republican districts in Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina into play, it could significantly alter the battle for control of the House.

Indeed, OCS issues almost tipped control of the Virginia House of Delegates; otherwise moderate Republican and incumbent David Yancey supported oil drilling, and ended up retaining his seat only by the luck of the draw, after a tie vote – if he had lost one vote, or the coin flip, Democrats and Republicans would have had to share control of the legislature. There were four other coastally oriented Virginia legislative races in which Republicans prevailed by less than 5 percent ― meaning that with Trump drilling heating up the ballot in two years, Democrats have even more opportunities to regain control.

Media coverage has focused on the predictable opposition from the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington, plus the flip-flop from drilling support to opposition by Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott (whose state actually has more remaining legally protected coastal areas than any other). But what is utterly different this time is that not only the West Coast and New England but almost the entire Southern and Mid-Atlantic coast is likely to rise – in addition to Florida, the Governors of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, (four of them Republicans) have already opposed drilling – a major shift from the divided reaction to Barack Obama’s original Atlantic drilling proposals, withdrawn because of such local opposition. Only Georgia has yet to oppose.

The administration has provided its opponents with ample ammunition by stripping its policies of even the pretenses of basic environmental standards, spill-protection and clean up funding. On the same day Zinke announced the leasing the press revealed that the Interior Department had abandoned a series of environmental best-practices governing leasing and other activities. Two weeks earlier the Department had cancelled a National Academy of Sciences study on the risks of drilling. Congressional Republicans allowed funding for the oil spill clean-up fund to expire, in order to give the oil industry a $500 million tax break. Rules designed to avoid a repetition of the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill have been rolled back.

This is an enormous opportunity for the environmental movement to broaden its role in the resistance to Trump. Opposition to Trump’s climate denialism has garnered enormous support, bubbling up from cities, businesses and states – but climate remains, by and large, a tribal partisan marker, leaving Republicans unmoved. As a result, environmentalists have yet to demonstrate the ability to reach across the partisan divide in mobilization opposition to Trump. The assault on the coasts could turn out to be a major blunder by the administration, precisely because it creates a bipartisan window of resistance. This is easier, because previous successful anti-drilling campaigns – California from the 1980s on, or the Atlantic Coast under Obama – have created a clear template – organize locally, lead with coastal dependent businesses, and find ways to enable people to become actively engaged in the campaign in the community, not just on line.

Environmentalists have recently done this kind of organizing very successfully, with a broad diversity of allies, against pipelines in Nebraska and the Dakotas. But can we make coastal protection once again a national movement, from Maine and Washington to Florida? We won’t be handed many chances this good, however clumsy the President continues to be.