Offshore drilling plan draws bipartisan opposition
A nor’easter bringing heavy rains, winds and flooding to the area did not stop hundreds from attending a hearing Friday to publicly express their objection to a new federal drilling proposal. “You can see with the weather and this turnout how important this issue is to [Long Islanders],” Assemb. Dean Murray (R,C,I-East Patchogue) told Department of the Interior officials at last week’s hearing. “Because it isn’t just an issue to us. It’s a way of life.”
The hearing came after weeks of pressure by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) to hold a hearing on Long Island. Originally, the sole public session in New York was scheduled in Albany. Zeldin said it was important for DOI officials to hear directly from Long Islanders, who this plan would have the most impact on statewide.
NY State Assembly members Christine Pellegrino and Steve Englebright co-hosted a hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature on Valentine’s Day for members of the public to express their concerns. The transcript was submitted to DOI as part of public comment. At the hearing, which Pellegrino said lasted nearly six hours, “the message was loud and clear: Do not drill in New York,” he said.
Dozens more speakers, including elected officials, activists, environmentalists and scientists, spoke to Department of the Interior representatives John Tanner, director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, and Kate MacGregor, assistant secretary of Land and Minerals Management, who also oversees the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, at the hearing held at Brookhaven Town Hall March 2.
On Jan. 4, Interior secretary Ryan Zinke announced the Trump Administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling by opening 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf to energy exploration. Set to begin next year, the plan would reverse Obama-era protections that limited drilling on U.S. coastlines. The five-year plan would make over 90 percent of the total OCS acreage available for drilling. The current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off limits, according to DOI.
It drew swift criticism from local, state and federal lawmakers in New York, who at the hearing cited both economic and environmental reasons for opposition.
“There is no evidence of these resources even being located off of Long Island,” Zeldin said at the hearing, adding that that alone is reason to exempt Long Island from the federal plan.
Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) pointed out that aside from himself, an Independent, a Republican and Pellegrino, a Democrat, were all slated to testify at the hearing. “Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you’re going to hear opposition to this proposal,” he said.
Thiele also pointed out that his district is considering a large-scale offshore wind project. “This is not a case of NIMBYism, in that we don’t want energy projects in our district. We do, but we want clean energy,” Thiele said. As Brookhaven Town prepares for alternative energy sources, like a solar farm atop the landfill, Brookhaven Town supervisor Ed Romaine agreed, calling the federal plan an “ill-fated idea.”
“Drilling in the ocean for gas or oil is foolhardy,” Romaine said, calling for the country to move towards renewable energy. Councilman Dan Panico also spoke, arguing that these energy sources are antiquated. “It makes me scratch my head, it bewilders me, when I hear this administration talking about coal in 2018. We should not be drilling for resources that are not there in a fragile environment,” he said.
For Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the proposal would nullify her and many others’ life’s work to preserve Long Island’s environment and waterways. “I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but who are you to threaten that?” she said at the hearing.
“We grow up with one foot in the water and one foot on the land,” Esposito told DOI reps in a passionate plea. “A fishing pole in one hand and a crab trap in the other. You might think we love living on Long Island because we love the taxes, or the traffic, but that’s not it. We love living by the water. It’s why we call Long Island home. We consider the bays and the beaches our backyard, we consider them our front yard, but we never consider them our junkyards.”
Others, like Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O, recalled past high-profile spills, like Deepwater Horizon in 2010 and the impacts it has had on the environment. “It is not a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when’ and ‘where,’” McAllister said of potential spills.
But it’s not just the threat of a spill that is raising concern. “Even just the exploratory phase of offshore drilling would be detrimental,” Zeldin said at the hearing. Seismic oil and gas exploration uses air gun blasts to find oil and gas deposits underneath the ocean floor. Towed behind ships, the air guns shoot loud blasts of compressed air, which reflect back information about buried oil and gas. Scientists say that the blasts harm marine mammals, fish and sea turtles — it’s why we’re taught not to tap on a fish tank. According to Oceana, the impacts of the blasts can include temporary and permanent hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, mating disruption and even beach strandings. Several species, including dolphins and whales, rely on their hearing to find food, communicate and reproduce.
According to MacGregor, the first 60-day public comment period, which ends March 8, is the first step in a long process that will include additional proposals, environmental impact statements and another 90-day comment period once initial comments are processed.
As Romaine and Panico pointed out, similar proposals touted by the Obama Administration and some dating back to the 1970s were all shelved, and they hope this plan will be scrutinized as well. “My town actually voted for this current president,” Romaine told federal officials at the hearing. “We hope he’s listening to us.”
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