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Offshore Drilling Opponents Dominate at Federal Meeting in Atlantic City

Although drilling leases are only being considered off the coast of Virginia, even a ‘small’ spill could destroy NJ’s fisheries and tourist industry

oil and gas leases

The potential for oil and natural-gas drilling off Virginia and the Southeastern states poses a dire threat to coastal tourism economies and the nation’s most populous coast, New Jersey fishermen and environmental advocates told officials with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Wednesday.

If there is an accident at a mid-Atlantic oil platform, it doesn’t need to be as big as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, said Thomas P. Fote of the Jersey Coast Anglers’ Alliance.

“When it happens off Virginia, it affects 20 million people. A 400-mile slick will go all the way to Massachusetts,” Fote said at the BOEM session, one of two dozen “scoping meetings” being held along the coast to gather public comment on the Obama administration’s plan to open part of the continental shelf for leasing by energy companies.

New Jersey politicians and business groups are heavily opposed to drilling. They remember the disastrous summers of 1987 and 1988, when garbage spills in New York Harbor and sewage plant failures decimated the state’s summer tourism season. The 87-day leakage from Deepwater Horizon showed what a spill would do in the Northeast, they say.

New Jersey’s $42 billion tourism industry and its 369,000 jobs would be destroyed by oil on the beaches, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said in a statement. The state’s $713 billion in coastal real estate, already depressed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, would take another hit, he said.

But it’s not just drilling that has environmental activists and other advocates worried: Seismic testing, which uses very loud blasts of compressed air to find undersea oil and gas deposits, is also a concern. So is offshore wind, which is typically touted as a clean alternative to drilling for fossil fuels. Some fishermen worry that once wind turbines are erected, security and safety concerns will keep them from fishing where they want to.

The plan announced in January pits states with big beach tourism dollars against Virginia, where business and political leaders say oil and gas leases could yield 25,000 jobs in shipbuilding, offshore services, and onshore construction. “Some of the (Virginia shore) towns are fighting it, like Chincoteague,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. The bigger bloc of resistance is from Maryland north to New England.

“The mayors of Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May counties are all opposed. We can’t afford this,” said Mayor Suzanne Walters of Stone Harbor, who said drilling would threaten Cape May County’s trade in 15 million annual visitors worth $5.8 billion.

“We saw what happened in Louisiana … If there’s an accident off Virginia, it will come here,” Walters said.

The scoping meetings are part of a public comment process, ending March 30, that BOEM will use in writing its draft environmental impact statement. It’s part of a process the agency goes through to update its five-year plans for developing offshore energy resources, said William Y. Brown, the agency’s chief environmental officer. A big change is opening a stretch of ocean off the East Coast, from the Virginia capes to Georgia, that oil companies could bid on for permission to drill.

The current plan expires in 2017, and the next one running to 2022 is expected to be ready before the end of 2016. “That mid-Atlantic lease may or may not be included,” Brown said. The federal energy agency is going to keep a promised 50-mile buffer that would keep any wells at least that far offshore, he said.

Even before drilling starts, the matter of exploration using loud sounds to probe for oil and gas deep under the seafloor is a problem for skeptics. Geologists compare using compressed-air blasts to get images of sediments to medical ultrasound, yielding three-dimensional images of what’s down there.

Environmental groups like Oceana have been waging a national campaign against seismic studies, arguing they harm sea life.

“Seismic testing may begin south of New Jersey as early as this summer…blasting the eardrums of every creature in the Atlantic Ocean,” said Cynthia A. Zipf of the Sandy Hook-based group Clean Ocean Action.

Brown said BOEM is taking seriously the concerns of fishermen and naturalists. The new plan could include protections for critical fish areas, he said, and will keep exploration away from the Hudson Canyon (a submarine channel that starts at the mouth of the Hudson River) and other undersea gorges, ancient ice age river beds that cut through the continental shelf.

“They’re biodiversity hotspots and important fishing areas,” Brown said.

To protect whales and other marine mammals, BOEM could take steps like closing areas in the ocean to seismic surveys at times when the animals are migrating, require reconnaissance to look for whales, and dispatch observers on survey ships to watch for them. Time and area closures could be used to address fishermen’s concern about fish being chased off by sound. “For fish, the data I’ve seen says they move” in reaction to the booming from seismic testing, Brown said. But so far, “we have not seen any scientific evidence” that seismic survey noise will reduce fish populations or their reproductive rates, he said.

In 2009, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar came to Atlantic City, hosting a massive public hearing that touted wind energy along with oil and gas for the mid-Atlantic. Fote of the Jersey Shore anglers recalled how British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster threw a wrench into that move.

“They’ve waited five years because BP happened right after” the 2009 mid-Atlantic energy proposals, Fote said..

There’s disagreement among drilling critics when it comes to wind power, too. Oceana activists, who advocate building offshore wind turbines instead of drilling for hydrocarbon fuels, walked around Wednesday’s session at the Sheraton with pinwheels modeled on turbines, like the ones that whirl at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority sewage plant at the city’s north end.

But for commercial fishermen, the prospect of mass turbine projects is as much a threat as drilling, because fishing areas could be closed off, said captain James Lovgren of the Fishermen’s Dock Cooperative in Point Pleasant Beach.

“Large swaths of the ocean are going to be off-limits to fishermen,” said Lovgren, who worries navigation and security issues will be used to lock them out from wind power areas.

“I just don’t see them being cost-efficient on the water” with maintenance costs, Lovgren said. “When the (government) subsidies dry up, boom, abandoned windmills … We should be putting solar on everyone’s house. My electric bill is a third of what it used to be.”

Kirk Moore is a New Jersey native who has been reporting and writing about the state for more than 30 years. As a reporter for the Asbury Park Press, Moore covered environmental, ocean, and military issues. He was a 2011 winner of the Online News Association's Knight Award for Public Service for the 2010 series “Barnegat Bay Under Stress” that helped push state and federal agencies to restore the bay’s ecological health. He lives in West Creek.

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