HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — If you drill, you will spill.
That was the message from a large group of opponents of Atlantic Ocean offshore drilling, who flooded a federal meeting on the subject in Mercer County on Wednesday.
They included environmentalists and politicians such as Gov. Phil Murphy; U.S. Democrat Sens. Robert Menendez and Cory Booker; and U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone, D-6th, and Chris Smith, R-4th, who attended via computer link and encouraged people to fight any offshore drilling.
Holding signs such as “Drilling is Killing” and “Go Frack Yourself: Stay Out of NJ,” opponents also criticized the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for the meeting’s location and format. The meeting was held at a hotel near Trenton rather than at a shore location, making it more difficult for shore residents to attend, they said.
And while people could leave written comments on BOEM’s proposed plan to allow drilling from Maine to Florida, there was no public hearing where BOEM staff would have to listen to comments and respond to them.
Instead, the meeting consisted of about 20 BOEM experts staffing information kiosks set up around a room to answer people’s questions about the plan.
BOEM Chief Environmental Officer William Brown said the agency, which is charged with carrying out the plans of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the Donald Trump administration regarding energy development in federal waters, takes all comments seriously.
“These are federal waters under federal jurisdiction, but the views of affected states have always had a lot of weight,” said Brown. Governors’ comments are particularly important, he said.
The proposed plan is likely to change once all the comments are examined, and all the data on energy needs and resources in the Atlantic are considered, he said.
BOEM has already suggested two areas be off limits to drilling, Brown said, because of their biological diversity. They are several underwater canyons that run along the coast, and a 25-mile buffer zone along the entire coast.
Murphy recently joined a coalition of about a dozen other governors, mostly from East Coast states, who oppose BOEM’s proposed offshore drilling plan. Former Gov. Chris Christie also opposed reopening the Atlantic Ocean to drilling. Both have said likely oil spills would threaten the state’s $40 billion tourist industry and $6 billion seafood industry.
Environmentalists held what was dubbed the “Valentine’s Day of Ocean Emotion,” at the same hotel at roughly the same time as the BOEM meeting, using a different meeting room. There, they allowed people to give up to two-minute statements that would be taken down by a court reporter and given to BOEM as official comments.
Clean Ocean Action led the effort with a large number of environmental organizations.
In January, the Trump administration announced a new five-year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024.
It would open the Atlantic from Maine to Florida to drilling in federal waters, which run from three miles to 200 miles out. BOEM will adjust the plan twice more and go through two more comment periods before any plan becomes final, according to a government video shown at the meeting.