As the Trump administration moves swiftly to reopen offshore oil and gas fields to drilling, top House Democrats expressed "serious concern" about whether the policy review is being conducted in good faith.
Two ranking Democrats, Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Raul Grijalva of Arizona, demanded in a letter sent Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to see "all risk assessments and analysis undertaken to determine how lifting the ban on drilling in these areas would not adversely affect fragile ecosystems or damage fishing, restaurant, or tourism interests."
"We believe the review of the leasing program lays the groundwork to eventually weaken key safety regulations that help prevent oil spill disasters," the letter said. "In doing so, this action greatly increases the threat of a devastating oil spill to these critical and irreplaceable marine ecosystems."
Pallone is the ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Grijalva holds a similar role in the Committee on Natural Resources. Both have strong environmental voting records and are frequent critics of the pro-fossil-fuel Republican agenda.
Their letter is part of an emerging pattern among Democrats in Congress who are trying to hold President Donald Trump's cabinet picks accountable in the policy reviews they are pursuing, especially related to climate change and the environment. Trump has vowed to roll back the main elements of the Obama administration's climate action plan.
Last Friday, Trump signed an executive order directing the U.S. Department of the Interior to reconsider the 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas leasing plan, which temporarily restricts drilling in parts of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. President Obama had also issued an executive order banning drilling indefinitely in these same offshore waters under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. Trump's recent executive order directs regulators to also lift that long-term ban, though that effort may be on shaky legal ground.
The Democrats say the areas were put off-limits to protect crucial habitat and waters valued for tourism, fishing and other benefits. The lawmakers cite past studies and reports on these topics, including the agency's own fact-sheets.
Pallone and Grijalva said that the Interior Department "should require oil and gas companies to use existing leases and opportunities in areas already open to drilling before even considering opening new areas to development."
They also want to know how a potential reduction in budget in 2018 would impact the review process and why a new planning process is taking place now when there is currently a glut in U.S. oil production.