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Outgoing US Interior chief to brief Trump on offshore oil, gas plans: sources

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Outgoing US Interior chief to brief Trump on offshore oil, gas plans: sources

Washington DC — Outgoing US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke plans to brief President Donald Trump Monday on the push to expand US offshore drilling, including a proposed five-year offshore leasing plan to be released in January and permitting for seismic drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, according to sources who have spoken to Zinke about his plans.

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Zinke is expected to continue to push to expand drilling access in federal waters, including off the country's Mid- and southern Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan coasts. He also is likely to make the case for federal permits for seismic testing in Atlantic waters, which is needed to measure oil and natural gas reserves from Delaware to northern Florida, sources said.

Zinke and Trump plan to meet Monday afternoon in the Oval Office, according to the White House press office.

A Department of the Interior spokesman declined to comment on the meeting.

On Saturday, Trump announced Zinke, who is facing numerous ethics probes, would be stepping down.

"I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations," Zinke wrote in a tweet on Saturday.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, is expected to serve as acting director once Zinke leaves by the end of the year.

Lobbyists said that they did not expect Interior's plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling to be slowed down by Zinke's departure.

The proposed five-year plan is expected to be released by mid-January, sources said.

Early this year, Interior unveiled a draft proposed plan for 2019 through 2024, which included 47 planned lease sales in waters from the Arctic to the southern US Atlantic coast.

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Shortly after the plan was announced Zinke said he was "removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms," but it is unclear which proposed sales Zinke wants to remove. In addition, by immediately removing Florida's waters from the options, Zinke may have opened up the entire proposal to a court challenge, legal sources say.

Interior has proposed holding nine lease sales for drilling rights in Atlantic waters, including three on the US' southern Atlantic coast, one in the Straits of Florida, two off the country's northern Atlantic coast - which runs from Delaware to the Canadian border, and three in the Mid-Atlantic.

Industry sources say they only expect, at most, the three Mid-Atlantic sales to remain by the time the plan is finalized.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on November 30 issued the final authorizations for five companies to conduct geophysical surveys for oil and gas reserves using airgun arrays in the Atlantic Ocean. Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to soon conduct an environmental review and determine whether to approve permits for these seismic tests.

Last week, nine environmental groups sued the Trump administration in an effort to block those seismic tests.

--Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

--Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh, newsdesk@spglobal.com