Spotlight: Oil Lobbyist

Tom Johnson | April 27, 2010
Jim Benton is a veteran of at least half-a-dozen offshore drilling hearings. The executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council—and former mayor of Pennington—has seen public policy and opinion shift dramatically. And he’s already heard the suntan oil joke

Jim Benton has been in Trenton long enough to see the sands shift dramatically on the issue of offshore oil and gas exploration.

As young staffer at the Office of Legislative Services back in the late 1970s, he recalls New Jersey and Rhode Island vying with each other to host the onshore support facilities to make it easier to drill for energy. Legislation was even introduced in New Jersey to exempt the drilling equipment from the state’s sales tax.

These days, however, the tide has turned. Practically the entire NJ congressional delegation opposes plans by the Obama administration to allow exploration off the Mid-Atlantic states, including up to the northern tip of Delaware, just 10 miles south of Cape May.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie held an Earth Day press conference last week lambasting the proposal.

So it was no surprise today to Benton, now a veteran oil industry lobbyist, when most of the score of speakers who showed at a Department of Interior hearing denounced not only the offshore drilling but also a proposed environmental impact statement on what measures should be taken to allow preliminary exploration to occur. If approved, it would not allow drilling, but only seismic testing to search for geophysical indications of deposits of oil and gas beneath the ocean.

To Benton, the 58-year-old executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council, the decision on offshore oil drilling should only be made once that information is in hand.

“Policies change. Considerations change. If they found significant quantities of natural gas off our coastline, I think it would change the dynamic dramatically,” said Benton, sitting in a chair at the hearing at the Sheraton Hotel at Newark Airport. Despite the protests at the hearing, he noted polls repeatedly show the public in New Jersey supports efforts to explore for oil and gas as an energy security issue.

That was not apparent at the hearing. Nancy Wittenberg, an assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, repeated the Christie administration’s opposition to the effort, which was echoed by representatives speaking for Rep. Frank Pallone and Sen. Robert Menendez, both Democrats. Foes cited the tragic disaster at an oil rig off the coast of Louisiana as an example of what could happen to New Jersey’s coastal zone. The Louisiana rig caught fire and sank last week, leaving 11 workers missing and feared dead and a widening oil spill in its wake.

Others at the hearing said even the seismic testing would have an adverse effect on marine mammals. The process involves shooting compressed air into the ocean, creating loud sonic waves that can travel long distances, possibly harming marine life. The technology is used to determine the most viable locations to explore for oil and gas, as well as mining for sand and gravel and can also be used to help site offshore wind farms.

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said his organization opposed any effort to industrialize the ocean, including drilling for oil and gas and mining. “The only oil we want to see on Jersey beaches is Coppertone,” Tittel said, eliciting a chuckle from Benton, a veteran of a half-dozen or more offshore drilling hearings. “I’ve heard that remark before about suntan lotion. Now, he’s going for branding,” the onetime mayor of Pennington said.

In his turn at the microphone, Benton, who has worked for the New Jersey Petroleum Council since 1979, expressed concern for the families of the oil workers, but noted the event is one of the rarest of industrial accidents. He added that the industry is determined to ensure it will never happen again. In more than 50 years of offshore exploration, he said, there has been no evidence to suggest that routine seismic survey result in population-level impacts for any marine mammal species.

As did other industry experts, he urged the Mineral Management Services to broaden to scope of the environmental impact statement to include the North Atlantic, saying there is a great deal of interest in surveying and eventually developing this area.

“There’s an overwhelming need for energy security and to make a contribution to that security compels us to move forward on this,” he said.