A lot sooner than they expected, coastal advocates find themselves in a new fight to prevent oil and gas drilling off the Jersey Shore.
The Trump administration will close comments on Thursday on the first step to develop a new program for oil and gas exploration on the outer continental shelf along virtually the entire nation’s coasts.
The process, governing the years 2019-2024, comes only six months after the federal government finalized a five-year program beginning this year for oil and gas leasing — one that excluded the Atlantic from any sales after a huge outcry from public officials, residents, and conservationists.
While the process is only just starting, opponents of oil and gas exploration off the Jersey coast want to send a strong signal during this phase that any drilling poses a threat to the state’s vibrant coastal communities — and its $44 billion tourism industry.
“We’ve got to be on the record at the earliest moments to make sure the state is not included in this new plan,’’ said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, who said the process is being fast tracked by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the U.S. Interior Department.
So far, some of New Jersey’s congressional delegation has weighed in with a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Both U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, as well as fellow Democrats Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th), Albio Sires (D-8th), Donald Norcross (D-1), and Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-9th) signed the letter.
“The reopening of this process not only endangers New Jersey’s coastal economy, but also ignores the will of the local communities that would be most impacted by oil drilling — including over 120 municipalities, 1,200 elected officials, 41,000 businesses, and 500,000 fishing families from up and down the Atlantic coast who have all voiced their opposition to oil and gas activities,’’ the delegation wrote.
To date, Gov. Chris Christie and his administration have not taken a stand. Questions to the governor’s press office were redirected to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which did not respond to queries.
In the past, Christie has opposed efforts to drill off the Jersey coast, including back in 2010 when then President Barack Obama proposed leasing acres off Virginia, and the northern tip of Delaware near Cape May in the Delaware Bay.
“Where is he now?’’ asked Zipf “If he skips this step, it sends a troubling message that New Jersey wants to be included in the plan.’’
In explanatory documents on its website, BOEM noted that all areas are under consideration to be included in the five-year plan. In its Request For Information (RFI), the agency said “we don’t propose to schedule sales in particular areas or make any preliminary decisions on what areas will be included in the schedule.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called the process “the most serious threat we’ve faced in 30 years’’ to the prospect of oil and gas drilling off the state’s coast. “This is real,’’ he said.