Feds set to sell oil drilling rights off Maine coast

ELLSWORTH — The federal government’s plan to allow drilling for oil off the coast of Maine has emerged from seeming oblivion.

Last April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order outlining what was described as an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy.” Soon afterward, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke ordered the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to begin development of a new Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program and opened hundreds of thousands of square miles of the nation’s coastal waters to oil and gas exploration.

Last week, after calling Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, “a straightforward leader that can be trusted,” Zinke exempted Florida’s coastal waters from future oil and gas drilling.

So far, no such luck for Maine.

On Monday, Jan. 22, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will hold a public meeting at the Augusta Civic Center. Scheduled to last from 3 to 7 p.m., according to the bureau’s website, the purpose of the meeting is to see that interested parties “can ask questions, share information, talk with our team members one-on-one, and learn more about the National OCS Program.”

The Augusta meeting is one of nearly two dozen scheduled for cities in virtually every coastal state throughout the nation, except Florida.

Speaking at a gathering of lobster and Jonah crab fishermen in Ellsworth last week, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher urged them to attend Monday’s hearing. An increasing amount of Maine’s lobster landings, and all Jonah crab, come from waters that could be affected by oil and gas drilling on the continental shelf.

For administrative and planning purposes, the outer continental shelf is divided into four regions: Alaska; Pacific; Gulf of Mexico; and Atlantic. The Atlantic region is divided into four “planning areas,” including the North Atlantic, which stretches along the coast from Cape May, N.J., to Quoddy Head. A map issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management suggests that drilling might be excluded within miles of the coast and in the Atlantic Canyon area stretching northeastward from the Virginia Capes.

There are no active oil and gas leases along the Atlantic coastline now and none has been authorized under the government’s existing 2017-2022 five-year leasing plan adopted during the administration of President Barack Obama.

That would likely change under Zinke’s proposed plan.

According to the ocean bureau, the proposal would make more than 98 percent of the nation’s outer continental shelf available for possible oil and gas leases through 47 sales during the five-year 2019–2024 period covered by the draft plan. The first proposed lease sale, tentatively scheduled for 2019, would cover the Beaufort Sea in the Alaskan Arctic. The first proposed lease sale for the North Atlantic area isn’t scheduled until 2021.

The draft makes it clear that increased exploitation of subsea oil and gas resources is the goal.

By not “prematurely restricting or narrowing” areas where drilling might be allowed, the draft plan says, the oil and gas industries will have the “opportunity to further inform the Secretary [Zinke] of their interest in leasing frontier areas” for exploration and drilling. And, the plan continues, Zinke’s “approach to the … lease sale schedule does not prematurely foreclose exploration planning, but fosters it, to allow for the potential discovery of oil and gas” in previously protected areas of the outer continental shelf.

The draft proposal for the new leasing program was issued Jan. 4. The public comment period closes March 9. Written comments on the proposal — or the yet to be issued Environmental Impact Statement — may be submitted online at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management website, boem.gov, or by mail.

The first step, though, would appear to be a visit to Augusta next Monday to find out just what the federal government has planned.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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