A standing room-only crowd packed the legislative auditorium at the county center today for a hearing on the Trump administration’s plan to lease the outer continental shelf for oil and gas exploration and drilling.
More than 50 people — including local elected officials, a trustee of the Shinnecock Nation, environmental advocates and experts and commercial and recreational fishermen — testified at today’s hearing in opposition to the draft plan, which would open more than 90 percent of the country’s outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration and drilling. The plan was announced by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke on Jan.4, implementing an executive order signed by President Donald Trump last year.
The hearing was convened by a trio of legislators who chair Assembly committees related to the environment, pollution and the Long Island Sound. A panel of seven members of the Assembly, including Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), listened to more than five hours of testimony.
Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket) chairman of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, said the legislators convened the hearing in Hauppauge in response to federal regulators holding a public hearing on the plan in Albany rather than on Long Island. The choice of Albany for the federal hearing drew sharp criticism from elected officials across the island, who called on the administration to hold the hearing on Long Island instead; the administration did not respond to those demands.
The plan drew swift and fierce opposition from coastal state governors across the nation, including N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
A representative of the N.Y. Attorney General’s office today said the state stands ready to take the federal government to court to stop it from moving forward.
“Attorney General Schneiderman is prepared to sue the interior department to protect Long Island’s oceans and coastlines,” said Peter Washburn, policy advisor in the attorney general’s environmental protection bureau.
Speaker after speaker warned of dire consequences to the marine environment and the regional economy in the event of an oil spill.
Offshore exploration and drilling represent “an extraordinary and unacceptable threat to our marine resources,” South Fork County Legislator Bridget Fleming told the state panel. The plan also threatens the region’s tourism-based economy — a $5.6 billion enterprise supporting more than 100,000 jobs on Long Island, Fleming said.
North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski addressed the impacts of bringing fossil fuels to shore and to markets.
“The specter of landing that fossil fuel on the shoreline and then distributing it will be very disruptive,” Krupski said. “It will destroy communities.”
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine noted that the plan was announced just after a 9-cent per barrel tax that funded emergency cleanup of oil spills expired.
“In addition, the Trump administration has announced plans to roll back regulatory protections for deep-water drilling,” Romaine said. “These regulations deal with safety checks and equipment standards on oil rigs. This will only increase the risk to our coastline from ocean drilling for oil and gas,” he said.
Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O stressed the danger posed by the chemical constituents of not only petroleum products but also the substances used to clean up spills. In locations that have suffered large spills and accidents, McAllister said, have seen high mortality of marine life across the board: marine mammals, fish and shellfish, waterfowl and plants.
“There will be massive loss of tidal wetlands with a resulting terrible impact on coastal resiliency,” he said.
Other speakers condemned the methods used to explore for underwater oil and gas deposits. Seismic tests done by air gun blasting — to locate underwater oil and gas resources miles below — have devastating effects on marine life from whales to plankton, said Alison Chase of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Seismic airguns release pressurized air bubbles that create powerful sound waves which travel six miles below the sea floor and return as echoes back to the surface where they’re captured by hydrophones,” said Guy Jacob of the Nassau Hiking & Outdoor Club.
“These seismic booms are among the loudest underwater noises recorded,” he said. They can create source amplitudes up to 240dB. The detonations travel up to 2,500 miles from their source, at 4,725 feet per second, he said. The new geophysical surveys proposed by the federal draft plan “would allow businesses to fire seismic air guns every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day for months,” Jacob said. “A single vessel can deploy up to 96 air guns.”
“Because water is such an excellent conduit for sound, seismic air blasts become weapons of mass mutilation,” Jacob said, “maiming and slaughtering organisms, from the largest whales to the most diminutive invertebrates throughout the web of marine life.”
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment — who organized a pre-hearing rally and protest outside the legislative auditorium this morning — underscored the potential deleterious impacts on public health, in addition to the impacts on marine life and the tourism economy.
“Crude oil is a toxin,” Esposito said. “It causes kidney liver and lung damage and can even kill people. It can cause neurological damage and endocrine disruption — things that are vastly overlooked,” she said.
“The 1970s called — they want their energy plan back,” quipped Esposito. She and others criticized the administration’s embrace of fossil fuel energy over renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal.
“Doubling down on fossil fuels does not put America first,” said Kevin Dugan, Long Island regional coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is suicidal, Long Island Progressive Coalition sustainability organizer Ryan Madden said.
“The air quality in Suffolk is the worst in N.Y. State, he said. Sustained unhealthy ozone levels put residents’ health and lives in peril.
Testimony taken at today’s hearing will be submitted as part of the written record being assembled by the federal interior department on its proposed plan, Englebright said.
Former county legislator and current congressional candidate Vivian Viloria-Fisher (D-East Setauket) implored the lawmakers to make sure “New York joins our sister states to say ‘not here in these United States, from sea to shining sea.’ This is a human tragedy,” she said.
“This is when we fight back against this ill-considered federal proposal,” Thiele said. “We’re listening and we hope the Trump administration is listening also.”
The federal hearing tomorrow will take place from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Hilton Albany. Written comments on the plan may be submitted through March 9. Comments can be submitted online.