Citing concerns about the Trump administration’s push to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), along with Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), are leading a group of 17 senators in demanding answers from the current acting head of the Department of Interior prior to his upcoming confirmation hearing. Secretary David Bernhardt has been tapped to permanently replace former Secretary Ryan Zinke.

In January 2018, the administration announced the largest planned expansion of offshore drilling in decades, in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, including in areas previously blocked off.

The Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management is expected to soon announce the next draft of its five-year National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Proposed Program for 2019-2024. As the senators wrote to Bernhardt, “We strongly urge you to indicate which states will or will not be included in the next draft of the five-year plan prior to your nomination hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The American people deserve to know your plan for the Outer Continental Shelf before the Senate votes on your nomination.”

The senators noted bipartisan requests to remove the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico from the next draft of the five-year plan. They also expressed concerns from coastal communities, local businesses, commercial and recreational fishing interests, and elected officials at all levels of government.

As a press release from the office of Menendez notes, “The lawmakers demanded answers from Bernhardt to a series of questions from whether he supports the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling and the Department’s efforts to address the risks of climate change, to steps taken to prevent a spill and committing to hold public hearings and meet with any coastal governor of any state that could be impacted by an oil spill.”

“The American public and their elected representatives in Congress deserve to understand your vision for the OCS before we consider your nomination to serve as Secretary of the Interior,” the letter states.

In addition to Menendez, Feinstein and Merkley, the correspondance was signed by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Menendez helped lead the charge in 2015 to convince the previous administration to remove the Atlantic Ocean from its five-year plan for 2017-2022, and for President Obama to use his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to ban oil and gas exploration in areas of the Atlantic Ocean.

The senator soon plans to reintroduce his Clean Ocean and Safe Tourism (COAST) Anti-Drilling Act to ban offshore drilling in the Atlantic.

Local organizations and individuals are also fighting the feds’ intention to allow offshore drilling. Earlier this month, Alliance for a Living Ocean and a number of partners gathered at Cape May Convention Hall for a Rally to Save Our Seas.

As the nonprofit explained, “Our current administration has plans to allow seismic testing in Atlantic waters for the sole purpose of fossil fuel exploration. We are opposed to these plans and hope you’ll take a stand with us. Reach out to your local representatives and tell them that our marine life and further our local economy will suffer due to these threats.”