By Laura Walter
If Florida gets a special meeting with the federal government, why shouldn’t Delaware?
That was Gov. John Carney’s essential message in January when Florida’s special meeting with the U.S. Department of the Interior resulted in that whole state being removed from consideration for offshore oil and gas drilling.
“After they removed Florida from the list, I asked for the same consideration here,” said Carney, who has opposed Atlantic oil exploration since he was a Congressman.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke originally planned to attend the May 31 meeting in Rehoboth Beach, but at the last minute sent Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt instead.
Carney invited members of the business and environmental communities to discuss the potential risks of offshore drilling to Delaware. He explained that Sussex County is one of three counties, and contributes significantly to the state’s economy through agriculture and tourism, which is primarily beach-based.
“The health of Delaware’s economy and environment are directly tied to the health of our coastal areas,” Carney has previously said.
“Overall, our whole economy is pretty dependent on tourism. It gives our residents and our visitors a really good impression of Delaware,” besides serving as a gateway to the shore for surrounding states, said Linda Parkowski, acting director of the Delaware Division of Small Business. “It is a great place to live and a great place to visit.”
In attendance were town council members who double as business owners and eco-buffs. There were restaurateurs who hire hundreds of people and donate millions to charity. All raised concerns about the impact of a potential oil spill if the Atlantic Ocean were leased for oil exploration and drilling.
After listening to concerns and sharing Zinke’s regrets for not attending in person, Bernhardt shared his own experience vacationing at the Delaware shore and his youth in a western Colorado town that had to balance the tourism and energy industries.
Bernhardt promised that Zinke is a good listener and that Delaware has been heard “loud and clear.”
While the Trump Administration has officially scrapped the prior Obama Administration plan to put a hold on any exploration or drilling in the Atlantic, the 2017-2022 oil and natural gas program still has several drafts and public comments periods before being finalized.
“There are many opportunities for public comment, and don’t think for a moment that it’s not worthwhile,” said Bernhardt, adding that he has seen one comment change a decision-maker’s mind. “Don’t let up.
“When we go through our process, we’ll look at the relative concerns of everybody, the effects to governors, the likelihood of industry interest — and I have to tell you, candidly, the industry has not expressed a lot of interest in a lot of these areas, and that’s going to be a factor” in the decision, he said. “The Secretary and I will be diligent in making those ultimate decisions … [for what] makes sense for states and for our country overall.”
So how did Florida get such a quick exemption?
“I think the Secretary — his statement speaks for itself. I think he has a view that Florida is unique in a couple of ways. Obviously, just like you, they have a significant portion of their economy is tourism-based, and that’s similar. They also have, through 2022, a specific [Congress-enacted] moratorium on this area on the Gulf of Mexico,” Bernhardt said. “And then, their governor and their entire congressional delegation on both sides of the aisle had all written in very quickly.”
Carney pointed out that Delaware had responded pretty quickly in opposition as well.
Bernhardt said the process is unfolding as Zinke continues to meet with officials and learn about each state.
But if its coastal waters were ruined, Southern Delaware doesn’t have other large-scale recreation — unlike Florida, which has Orlando’s theme parks and the space program — said business owners Jen Adams-Mitchell and Richard Mais.
Proposal on the table
Every five years, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) writes a national management plan for the Outer Continental Shelf, about 50 miles from shore.
Right now, Bernhardt said, the Department of the Interior is just doing as instructed. President Donald Trump started the department process from square one. He ordered Zinke to reconsider offshore drilling for more than 90 percent of the U.S. outer continental shelf acreage.
That would be written into BOEM’s new National Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which would replace the 2017-2022 Program, in which the Obama administration had removed the Atlantic from consideration. The schedule includes the size, timing and location of leasing activity that would best meet national energy needs. Details are online at www.boem.gov/National-Program.
During the first public comment period this winter, many people asked BOEM not to consider the Atlantic.
Bipartisan concerns of oil drilling
The Delaware meeting demonstrated that even people who support the current presidential administration do not support Atlantic drilling.
“I understand that we need energy-independence. … I’m a big supporter of our administration. I’m a Trump guy. And I understand what’s he’s trying to do — make us energy-independent so we don’t have to fight wars. But it’s not the right place,” said Jeff Hamer, owner of Fins Hospitality Group.
“Collectively in this room, we make big industry, which is small [businesses],” said Hamer, who proposed drilling elsewhere in the United States that wouldn’t disrupt industry.
Local restaurants and charter fishing boats depend on healthy seafood, including migratory rockfish, blue crabs and other shellfish.
There is one pro “and a lot of cons,” said Kevin Denison of 3 Amigos Sportfishing charter boat company.
“I’d be the guy out there daily seeing construction. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were benefits to my industry — fish tend to populate around structures. There are people in my industry who would be all for drilling,” said Denison, adding that, despite that, he has “severe concerns” that “anything in the way of a catastrophic event would shut businesses down, would shut tourism down.
“I’ve been a huge supporter of the current administration from the start and now continue to support. This is a topic that that I’m having a hard time with,” he said.
Thousands of local jobs depend on tourism, and the business owners said they feel responsible for those families. Chad Moore said he’s not confident he could keep people employed in the event of a catastrophic spill.
State Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) agreed that Delaware, like Florida, is environmentally sensitive. Even without a major spill occurring, small leaks occur, and he said he wouldn’t want to see the tar balls washing up in Delaware, as he once witnessed in Texas.
“Seventy percent of Delaware coastline are wetlands, and they provide the state an essential buffer for coastal storms, said Kristin Barnekov-Short, chief of staff of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control (DNREC). “Wetlands are vital to the health and safety of the residents Delaware,” which has the nation’s lowest average elevation.
Not only is that important sanctuary for animals — including the horseshoe crabs whose spawning provides a smorgasbord of eggs for birds migrating across continents — but the eco-tourists and birdwatchers bring another round of tourism income.
“It is a phenomenon that attracts visitors from around the world,” said Anne Harper, executive director of the Delaware Nature Society.
“The attraction here is the environment, the beach, the ocean, obviously,” Carney said. “We have commercial and recreational fisheries here as well. And the idea that any kind of any catastrophic event would be — catastrophic. That’s been our fundamental concern all the way through this process.”
Delaware builds its defenses
State Senators entered two bipartisan bills in May to push against potential drilling. Both await consideration in committee.
Senate Bill 200 would prohibit drilling for oil or natural gas in Delaware’s coastal zone and territorial waters and stops DNREC from issuing any permits regarding the development of offshore drilling infrastructure, whether in Delaware’s territorial waters or beyond.
Senate Bill 207 has several parts, including expressing the General Assembly’s and the governor’s opposition to the draft proposed program and instructing the Attorney General and DNREC to keep a close eye on the process and Delaware’s own Coastal Zone Management Act.