Public has last chance to comment on ocean oil drilling


Anyone who has an opinion on seismic testing or oil drilling in the Atlantic Ocean should say something now.

Friday, March 9, is the deadline for comments to the Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM), which the White House instructed to create a new National Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024. The leasing program would evaluate and potentially pave the way for seismic testing or oil and gas drilling in most U.S. waters. (Details can be found at www.boem.gov/National-Program.)

People have a major role to play, said Kathy Phillips of the Assateague Coastal Trust at a forum held this week to give local stakeholders a greater chance to learn about the issue and be heard.

“Because of the number — the sheer volume — of public comments that were submitted the last time around, during the Obama administration, at the end of his term, he did rescind the entire Atlantic seaboard from the drilling program. … Unfortunately, when the next administration came, [Trump] reversed all that. And that’s why all of you are here today.”

Almost the entire U.S. coastline is up for discussion for potential oil and gas lease sales on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. That’s the north, south and mid-Atlantic coast, as well as Alaska, the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico.

Right now, BOEM is considering the largest expansion of offshore drilling ever, on nearly the entire U.S. Outer Continental Shelf. At the Department of the Interior, which oversees BOEM, officials have cited a goal of not just U.S. energy independence, but energy dominance in the world.

The proposal backtracks on the weight of millions of public comments that influenced the 2017-2022 Five Year Program, with the Obama administration moving to protect several regions and reject seismic permits there.

“The only thing that changed was the man in office,” said Matt Heim of Oceana of why the change is happening now.

In the March 3 forum designed to encourage people to speak against offshore oil/gas development, Suzanne Thurman of the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation (MERR) Institute discussed dangers of seismic testing on sealife; the nightmare of an oil spill on Delaware’s fishing and tourism industry; and Delaware’s importance as a feeding ground for international bird migration patterns.

BOEM officials have said the most “helpful comments are fact-based; include links to data or research; provide specifics regarding impacts to the ocean and coasts, the plants and animals, to people, and how people use the ocean; and where and when the ocean is utilized.”

“While any comment is a good comment … the best comments are science-based,” said Matt Heim of Oceana. “They talk about ocean use and how drilling would specifically impact recreation, economic activities, wildlife, ecology, things of that nature. They’re looking for specifics.”

“Your personal use and enjoyment of the coastlines would also be useful for them to understand,” said Debbie Heaton of the Delaware Sierra Club. For example, she said, a BOEM employee was curious about the biodiversity of the offshore fishing canyons. “You all have something to say. You all have a stake in what happens out there.”

“Fish and oil don’t mix unless you’re cooking,” said Rich King of Delaware Surf Fishing.

King said fishermen are mistaken if they’re envisioning the shallow oil rigs of the Gulf of Mexico, which are anchored to the seafloor and can actually build local ecosystems and fishing hotspots. Instead, Atlantic rigs would be floating in the deep sea.

“They’re going to be large floating cities that suck oil out of the ground. … This could be a very big problem if we have a spill,” King said, adding that “seismic testing will change the migratory patterns of fish,” as seen with regional seabass.

Heaton recalled when there was oil exploration along the Atlantic Coast in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“And I experienced firsthand what some of the impacts of the offshore drilling and exploration are. I still remember the tar balls that stuck to my skin and swimsuit. It coated parts of the beach, killed the clams, crabs, and harmed the shorebirds. I’m sure the experience made a lot of parents question their investment and of time and hard-earned money on vacation at the beach,” Heaton said. “And, if you’re curious, peanut butter takes the tar off.”

Getting involved

Public comments will be accepted until Friday, March 9.

Online comments are preferred and can be made by visiting www.boem.gov/comment or www.regulations.gov (search for “boem-2017-0074”).

All information on the program, how to comment and displays from the public meetings are online at www.boem.gov/National-Program-Participate.

With the public comments recorded, BOEM will draft a Proposed Program, which will be published for a 90-day public comment period, to be followed by a Proposed Final Program (PFP).

Once BOEM determines which areas are eligible for leasing, companies would apply for seismic testing permits to find the best likely drilling sites. Much later, the oil companies would decide whether to drill, if they won a lease. That could be many years down the road, assuming the entire process unfolds as such, and the public can comment at various points throughout.

As required, BOEM held public hearings in each coastal state capital, but some of the locations were 100 miles from the coast. That’s why local environmentalists organized the March 3 Offshore Oil Drilling Public Forum in Lewes.

Moreover, U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons and 21 other U.S. senators have requested that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke extend the March 9 deadline and host more public hearings in rural and coastal areas. But as of mid-week, there had been no movement on that front.

So far in Delaware, opposition to drilling and seismic testing has been widespread among beach- town officials, the governor, some state legislators and the U.S. Congressional delegation.