With the federal government’s final proposal for new off-shore oil and gas exploration expected this fall, environmental advocates are visiting East End officials asking them to formally object to the plan.
The Department of Interior in January released a draft plan that would allow off-shore oil and gas exploration and drilling in in more than 90 percent of the nation’s outer continental shelf, including in waters off the Atlantic coast.
The plan implements an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in April 2017 requiring the U.S. to widen domestic energy exploration. Currently about 94 percent of the outer continental shelf is off-limits to oil and gas drilling under rules adopted last year by the Obama administration. The draft plan is hailed by federal officials as “advancing the goal of moving the United States from simply aspiring to energy independence to attaining energy dominance.”
Enthusiastically backed by the energy industry, the draft plan drew swift condemnation by a coalition of environmental organizations and business, trade and tourism groups, as well as a host of regulators and elected officials at every level of government. Opponents say oil spills have devastating impacts to marine life and local economies — even the process used in exploration — seismic airgun blasting — has far-reaching damaging consequences. The damages — both immediate and potential — far outweigh the benefits, they say.
The federal government held a public hearing on the plan in Albany Feb. 15 — declining requests by area elected officials, including Rep. Lee Zeldin, to move it downstate. But Zeldin and state elected officials convened their own public hearings on Long Island, taking testimony from local residents and submitting it to the federal agency during the public comment period, which closed March 9. Both hearings — one convened by Assembly Member Steve Englebright in Hauppauge and another convened by Zeldin in Patchogue — drew more than 300 people. A senior Interior Department official attended Zeldin’s hearing in Patchogue.
Representatives of Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization, and Group for the East End are visiting local officials to discuss the details of the draft plan and their objections to it — and asking them to formally register their objection to it before a final proposal is released this fall.
Riverhead Town has not yet weighed in on the draft plan.
Brian Langloss of Oceana and Aaron Virgin of Group for the East End met with the town board Thursday to urge its members to adopt a resolution stating Riverhead’s opposition to the plan. Even though the official comment period on the plan ended in March, a resolution is a “direct message” from the town to the federal government has significance.
“It is important to let the Department of Interior know: ‘Do not drill here,’” said Langloss.
“We really need to directly influence Washington.”
Langloss said New York’s “clean coast economy” is worth $39 billion annually and 414,000 jobs. An oil spill would do long-term damage to the local economy: damage to commercial fisheries, water-dependent recreational businesses and tourism, he said, pointing to the example of the Gulf Coast following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which he said will have more than $8 billion in economic impacts by 2020 and has resulted in the loss of 22,000 jobs.
The draft plan released this year would upend the plan adopted in 2016, Langloss told the board. It delineates 47 separate lease sites, including some off the coast of New York. The 2016 plan excluded the Atlantic and Arctic oceans as drill sites.
The Trump administration’s approach is to “put polluters first,” Langloss said. “The marine mammal protection act is being stripped. The well control safety regulations are being weakened. Every way you look at it, this plan is designed to put polluters first.”
The Streamlining Environmental Approvals Act, known as the SEA Act, is currently pending in Congress and would make it easier to get approvals for seismic airgun blasting permits, Langloss said. Seismic airgun blasting is the method used to locate potential underwater well sites and involves firing large airguns into the sea floor.
“They create one of the loudest manmade sounds in the ocean,” Langloss said. “They’re fired every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for weeks to months on end. Seismic airgun surveys injure and kill marine line and depopulate commercial fisheries. Whales and dolphins rely on their hearing to find food and communicate. It’s a life or death matter. It puts them at great peril.” The airgun blasts also kill fish eggs and larvae and scare fish away from important habitats, he said.
“Let’s say we don’t care about the fish or animals,” Langloss said, “and we care about our fishing economies. Following seismic surveys, catch rates for cod and haddock declined by 40 to 80 percent for thousands of miles of an impacted area,” he said.
The governors of every state along the Atlantic coast have voiced strong opposition to the draft plan, with N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowing to go to court to block it, if necessary.
The federal docket for the draft plan contains tens of thousands of comments submitted in opposition to it.
A host of federal, state, county and local elected officials from across New York — and across the country — either voiced their opposition at public hearings or submitted written comments opposing the draft plan, the docket shows.
County Legislator Al Krupski spoke against the plan at Englebright’s Feb. 14 hearing. “To invest in fossil fuel exploration, instead of investing in renewal energy really sends the wrong message to the next generation,” he said.
State lawmakers Ken LaValle, Anthony Palumbo and Fred Thiele registered their opposition, as did county legislators DuWayne Gregory, Rob Calarco, Bridget Fleming, Kara Hahn, Sarah Anker, William Lindsay, Monica Martinez and Susan Berland, who signed a joint letter opposing the draft plan.
Letters opposing the plan from the supervisors of the towns of Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown are also in the docket.
The Town of East Hampton and the Town of Southampton both adopted resolutions expressing opposition to the draft plan, Langloss said.
Langloss and Virgin said they are hoping to meet with the town boards of Southold and Shelter Island to ask them to express opposition to the draft plan.
Southold Supervisor Scott Russell and Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith both attended a news conference called by Zeldin at the L.I. Aquarium Jan. 26 and both spoke out against the plan.
The Riverhead Town Board is expected to vote on a resolution at tomorrow’s meeting expressing the town’s opposition.
Editor’s note: This story has been amended post-publication to reflect the fact that a DOI official attended the March 2 hearing convened by Rep. Lee Zeldin.