Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, Nat Geo Image Collection
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This oil rig and pipeline off Alaska may become a more common sight across much of the U.S. coasts, but at what cost?

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, Nat Geo Image Collection

Trump's Offshore Drilling Plan—What You Need to Know

A new federal plan would expose 90 percent of coastal waters to oil drilling efforts. Here's what that means.

On January 4, the Trump administration unveiled a five-year blueprint to expand offshore drilling and gas leasing in nearly all U.S. waters. The plan, which would span 2019 to 2024, would also let the government auction off permanently protected areas. (Read a running list of how the Trump administration is changing the environment.)

"We want to grow our nation's offshore energy industry, instead of slowly surrendering it to foreign shores," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says in a statement.

The Plan

The proposed plan would expand offshore drilling to more than 90 percent of waters in the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf of Mexico, and Arctic. According to the Interior Department, more than 3 billion barrels of oil and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie off the outer continental shelf.

Supporters like House Speaker Paul Ryan say harvesting these natural resources creates jobs, and opening up previously protected areas could allow for a new flow of money to state and federal governments. Trump added in April that expanding offshore exploration would promote the scientific study of the previously protected areas. If it can be done in an environmentally safe way, Maryland Representative Andy Harris supports the plan.

This new plan would reverse former President Obama's ban on drilling on the Atlantic coast and in the Arctic. In 2015, Obama blocked oil exploration on some 22 million acres of Alaskan land and water after receiving backlash on his previous plan to open parts of the Atlantic coast to drilling and exploration. (Read about five animals helped by the drilling ban.)

As to what might happen next, Zinke hinted that many negotiations must follow. "This is a draft program. The states, local communities, and congressional delegations will all have a say," before the proposal is finalized, Zinke said at a news conference.

A History of Opposition

A number of East Coast and West Coast groups have staunchly opposed fossil-fuel drilling and exploration, and coastal states have historically had a "not on my coast" approach to it. Many Republicans and Democrats alike have denounced any future plans for oil drilling and seismic testing off their states.

What Are Fossil Fuels?

On hearing the announcement today, Florida Governor Rick Scott tweeted that he intends to meet with Zinke to discuss the drilling plan and possibly remove his state from consideration in it. In a statement, Scott says, "My top priority is to ensure that Florida's natural resources are protected."

A spokesman for Maryland Governor Larry Hogan also said his attorney general was looking to take action to stop possible exploration near the state's shores. In August, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie sent a letter to the Interior Department opposing any future drilling plans on his state's coastline.

Environmentalist Al Gore also voiced his concern:

If communities can work with their state officials to take legal action against the proposed plan before it gets finalized, they may have a shot at saving their states' shores from the harmful effects of offshore exploration.

The Atlantic coast has been off-limits for drilling since 1981. The Pacific coast could have about 22 billion barrels of oil, but that area hasn't seen offshore drilling in decades. The current administration's new plan could spoil these coasts with spills and industrial development, opponents warn. They argue that healthy ocean ecosystems have been key to the growth of tourism, fishing, and recreation.

The Arctic is among the planet's least developed oceans. The Gulf of Mexico, where the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster leaked millions of barrels of oil in 2010, is already a web of pipelines and wells. Soon after the monumental spill, then-President Obama issued a six-month moratorium on deepwater drilling. But since then, drilling efforts have continued. (Read "Is Gulf Oil Spill's Damage Over or Still Unfolding?")

Impacts on Animals (and Jobs)

About 195 million gallons of gas are lost into our oceans yearly from oil extraction, transportation, and consumption. The new plan could raise the risk of damage to the largely pristine waters of the Arctic, home to many endemic species, opponents warn.

Polar bears could be hurt by drilling in the Arctic. The animals are already at risk due to climate change melting their icy habitats, and further pollution could poison their prey. (Watch: "Heart-Wrenching Video Shows Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land.")

Also threatened by warming temperatures, narwhals and walruses are at risk of oil spills. Overfishing has depleted populations of North Atlantic cod, and restricting oil drilling in their remaining habitat has helped the species recover. Cold and deep-water coral may live for hundreds of years, but the slow-growing animals are extremely sensitive to pollution. (Read: "Window to Save World's Coral Reefs Closing Rapidly.")

It's possible the administration's new plan could create jobs, but drilling offshore doesn't make as many jobs as it does onshore. At the same time, a spill could threaten jobs based on the coasts, like those that depend on fishing, tourism, and recreation. After the BP oil spill, the Gulf coastal tourism industry lost about $22.7 billion, and the area's commercial fishing industry lost $247 million.

Drilling in the Arctic's unforgiving and remote environment could also be dangerous for workers, and the Coast Guard has said the U.S. is not prepared to clean up an Arctic oil spill. (Read more about marine pollution and ocean threats.)

This story has been updated with information on states responses to the plan and its effects on wildlife.