One of two dozen public scoping sessions brought out friends and foes of offshore drilling, as the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management begins its process of drafting an environmental impact statement for the first-ever leasing of potential production areas off the mid-Atlantic states.
The 60-day public comment period is part of the BOEM’s mission to plan “the orderly and expeditious development of oil and natural gas on the continental shelf,” William Y. Brown, BOEM’s chief environmental officer, explained at a March 18 session in Atlantic City, N.J.
As proposed by the Obama administration in January, the process of drawing a new five-year updated plan for 2017 to 2022 would open new waters off Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s the prospect of drilling off the populous East Coast that’s drawing the most political pressure, pro and con.
Early objections came from fishing and environmental groups worried about the use of air guns in seismic testing and effects on marine mammals and fish. Brown said BOEM officials are listening to those concerns, and seeking advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and regional fishery management councils.
“With protections, it would be appropriate to consider seismic surveys,” Brown said. Those requirements could include aerial reconnaissance and shipboard observers to look for whales and sea turtles, and time and area closures along known migration routes, he said.
Area closures could be used to reduce conflicts with the fishing industry, Brown said. He said there’s evidence that fish will move in response to air gun noise, so fishing advocates have a point. The agency is also going to keep exploration activities away from the Hudson Canyon and other submarine gorges on the shelf that are “biodiversity hotspots and important fishing areas,” he added.
The bottom line is, any NOAA permits must ensure there are no negative effects on overall populations and their reproduction, he said.
Fear of any spills and the effect on coastal tourism economies are the other main points for opponents, who raise the specter of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010.
“We can’t afford this,” said Mayor Suzanne Walters of Stone Harbor, N.J., near the state’s southern tip in Cape May County where beaches attract some 15 million visitors annually and bring $5.8 billion to the local economy.
“We saw what happened in Louisiana,” Walters said. “If there’s an accident off Virginia, it will come here.”
Other coastal states are divided politically, like South Carolina. At the March 12 scoping meeting in Mount Pleasant, residents of beach communities worried about oil on beaches. But Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., spoke of an estimated $2.7 billion that would come into the state’s economy with offshore development.
BOEM and industry observers say there’s more likelihood of finding exploitable natural gas off the middle Atlantic than substantial oil, and there have been on-and-off moves to explore since the first energy crises of the 1970s. The last industry seismic surveys from the region date back to the 1980s, Brown said.
The move toward leasing is a culmination of the Obama administration's “all of the above” energy strategy declared early in the presidency.
“We did this in 2009 when [Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar came down” to Atlantic City, recalled Thomas P. Fote of the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, one of the recreational groups opposed to offshore development.
At that time, Salazar spoke of both hydrocarbon and offshore wind development for the mid-Atlantic. But “they waited five years because BP happened right after,” Fote said.
Meanwhile, BOEM has been quietly moving forward with its plan to offer competitive wind lease sales off New Jersey. But the political and regulatory environment for wind ventures is much changed in that state.
Utility regulators are in court with Fishermen’s Energy, a start-up project that would build five turbines just off the beach. The company has a promise of $47 million in federal money, but the state Board of Public Utilities says that’s not enough to avoid an unfair subsidy burden on New Jersey ratepayers.
Gov. Chris Christie’s early enthusiasm for offshore wind has all but disappeared, a shift that political observers lay to Christie’s presidential ambitions and relationships to Republicans who support fossil fuel industries and dislike the subsidies for renewables.
That’s fine with commercial fisherman James Lovgren of the Fisherman’s Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. He worries about offshore wind farms interfering with navigation and reducing access to fishing grounds, all with no guarantee the wind turbines are viable in the long run.
“When the [government] subsidies dry up, boom, abandoned windmills,” he said.
Read the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management five-year plan here.