Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling Leasing, Rules and Guidance

The Environmental & Energy Law Program is tracking the environmental regulatory rollbacks of the Trump administration. Click here for the list of rules we are following. If you’re a reporter and would like to speak with an expert on this rule please email us.

Why it Matters

Following the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued rules and guidance to fill glaring regulatory gaps in emergency response and operational oversight. Meanwhile, President Obama removed certain areas of the outer continental shelf from oil and gas development, because of i) their proximity to productive fisheries, ii) their ecological value, or iii) their being too remote and rugged to support a proper response to spills and other accidents. (The outer continental shelf or OCS consists of “all submerged lands lying seaward of state coastal waters…under U.S. jurisdiction”.) Rolling back these rules and designations increases risks both to offshore oil worker safety and to the economic value of US oceans and coastal areas unrelated to oil and gas development as well as the ecological well-being of those areas.

Current Status

On April 28, 2017 Trump issued Executive Order 13795 directing actions to reconsider the prior administration’s efforts to limit or regulate offshore oil and gas development. Interior Secretary Zinke issued Secretarial Order 3350 on May 1, 2017 instructing the agencies under his purview on how to implement the Executive Order. These two orders have kicked off numerous actions related to leasing, regulatory rollback efforts, and permitting described in more detail under the History section below. We have split these actions into three pages covering activities related to the following categories:

  • Review of Marine Natural Resources and Sanctuaries: Information about the Department of Commerce’s review of marine monuments and sanctuaries is contained in our separate post tracking the review of all national monuments and sanctuaries (both marine and onshore).
  • Offshore Leasing Program: This page primarily focuses on the development of the 2019-2024 5-Year Leasing Program in which the Administration has opened up vast new areas to leasing. This has kicked off significant pushback from Atlantic states on the possibility of drilling off their shores and will result in new lease sales in the Arctic. We have also included some information on lease sales under the current 2017-2022 5-year Lease Plan.
  • Regulatory Changes: This covers the activity at BOEM, BSEE, NOAA, and NMFS to rollback various regulatory changes targeted in the Executive and Secretarial orders. So far, these include BSEE’s Offshore Safety Regulation Rule, BSEE’s Blowout Preventer and Well Control Rule, BOEM and NMFS/NOAA’s handling of geological and geophysical permits (particularly involving seismic airgun surveys) and incidental take authorizations, BOEM’s Offshore Air Quality Rule, BOEM’s Notice to Lessees 2016-N01 Requiring Additional Security, and BOEM & BSEE’s Exploratory Arctic Drilling Rule.

Some of the most recent activities described in more detail on the above pages include:

  • On May 11, 2018, BSEE proposed changes to the April 29, 2016 Blowout Preventer Systems and Well Control rule. On July 5, 2018, BSEE extended the comment period for this proposal until August 6, 2018. Submit comments here. (Learn more at our Regulatory Changes post.)
  • On May 24, 2018, nonprofit organization American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act suit against the Department of the Interior asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force Interior to turn over communications leading up to its decision to expand offshore drilling leasing and to exclude Florida from that expansion. – American Oversight v. U.S. Department of Interior, No. 1:18-cv-01216. (Learn more at our Offshore Leasing Program post.)
  • On June 21, 2018 NMFS / NOAA published in the Federal Register an April 2018 Revision (NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-OPR-59) to its July 2016 Technical Guidance on the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals and the acoustic thresholds for underwater activity. The next day, on June 22, 2018 NMFS / NOAA published a proposed rule to establish a framework for the authorization of incidental takings due to geophysical survey activities (including seismic airgun surveys) in the Gulf of Mexico. The comment period is open until August 21, 2018. (Learn more at our Regulatory Changes post.)
  • On July 12, 2018, BOEM announced an August 15, 2018 lease sale for 78 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. The notice of availability of the Record of Decision for proposed Lease Sale 251 was published in the Federal Register on July 16, 2018. This is the third sale in the 2017-2022 leasing program. Ten are scheduled for the Gulf of Mexico during this period. On July 16, 2018, environmental groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging this lease sale, alleging it relied on arbitrary environmental analyses in violation of NEPA and the Administrative Procedure Act.
  • (Learn more at our Offshore Leasing Program post.)


April 5, 2016 — The Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM) / DOI proposed an offshore air quality rule.

April 29, 2016 – The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) / DOI finalized a rule to enhance blowout preventer and well control requirements, including well design, casing, cementing, and monitoring upgrades.

July 2016 — Department of Commerce (“Commerce”) / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) / National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finalized guidance on acoustic thresholds for underwater activity, to lessen the impact of offshore development on marine mammals.

July 15, 2016 — BSEE / BOEM / DOI finalized a rule to govern exploratory offshore Arctic drilling.

September 7, 2016 – BSEE issued a final rule amending and updating offshore oil and gas production safety regulations.

September 12, 2016 — BOEM / DOI issued a Notice to Lessees and Operators (NTL No. 2016-N01) on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), to consider increasing financial security to meet decommissioning costs.

December 20, 2016 —  President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum withdrawing 3.8 million acres of OCS oil and gas development in the Atlantic and 115 million acres in the Arctic. All told, President Obama protected 125 million acres of the Arctic offshore.

January 6, 2017 – BOEM denied six pending geophysical and geological permit applications to conduct airgun seismic surveys in the Mid- and South Atlantic because President Obama had removed the waters from leasing consideration.

Trump Era

April 28, 2017 — President Trump signed Executive Order 13795 to “encourage energy exploration and production” on the OCS. The Executive Order directed numerous actions aimed at reconsidering actions of the prior administration taken to limit or regulate offshore oil and gas development.

  • It directed Interior to consider lease sales in the Central and Western Gulf of Mexico, Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, Cook Inlet, the Mid-Atlantic, and the South Atlantic, areas not yet open to oil and gas development.
  • The Order modified the Withdrawal of Areas of the OCS from Leasing issued by President Obama on December 20, 2016 to limit withdrawal to those areas designated as Marine Sanctuaries as of July 14, 2008.
  • Commerce was barred from designating or expanding a National Marine Sanctuary without a full report by Interior about the energy potential of the area. Commerce must review all Marine National Monuments and Sanctuaries designated or expanded since 2007, with a final report in 180 days.
  • Interior and Commerce were directed to take steps to expedite all stages of consideration of Incidental Take Authorization requests (Incidental Harassment Authorizations, Letters of Authorization, and Seismic Survey permit applications) under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • The Order also directed DOI to reconsider the April 5, 2016 proposed air rule, the April 29, 2016 well control rule, the July 15, 2016 offshore Arctic drilling rule, and the September 12, 2016 decommissioning notice to lessees along with BOEM’s financial assurance regulatory policy, and directed NOAA to reconsider the July 2016 technical guidance on acoustic thresholds.

May 1, 2017 – DOI Secretary Zinke issued Secretarial Order 3350 to direct BOEM and BSEE as to how to implement the president’s Executive Order.

Zinke directed BOEM to:

  • initiate the development of a new Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program;
  • establish a plan to expedite consideration of Incidental Take Authorization requests needed for seismic survey permits and other OCS activities;
  • streamline permitting for privately-funded seismic data research and collection;
  • expedite consideration of appealed, new, or resubmitted seismic permitting applications for the Atlantic;
  • promptly complete review of Notice to Lessees No. 2016-N01 and provide a report describing the review and options for revising or rescinding it;
  • cease all activities to promulgate the offshore air rule proposed on April 5, 2016; and
  • provide a report within 21 days of the Secretarial Order on the progress of these items.

Zinke directed BSEE to:

  • review the final Blowout Preventer and Well Control rule and any related guidance, etc. and provide a report within 21 days with recommendations as to whether to suspend, revise, or rescind the rule.

Zinke directed and BSEE and BOEM to jointly review the final rule for exploratory drilling in the Arctic issued in July 15, 2016 and provide a report within 21 days with recommendations as to whether to suspend, revise, or rescind the rule.

Zinke directed the Counselor to the Secretary for Energy Policy (a position established by Secretarial Order 3351 issued concurrently with 3350) to work with the Department of Commerce to review national marine sanctuary and monument designations.

See our post tracking the review of all national monuments and sanctuaries (marine and onshore) here.

See our post tracking the offshore drilling leasing program rollbacks here.

See our post tracking the offshore drilling regulatory changes here.

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