Offshore drilling meeting battles clock, weather

AUGUSTA — Despite an avowed desire for public input on the Trump administration’s plan to open the nation’s coastal waters to offshore drilling for oil and gas, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) held an informational meeting at the Augusta Civic Center last Wednesday just one day before the close of the public comment period.

The session also took place only hours before the onset of a northeast storm that deposited a foot or more of snow over much of Maine and knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses.

The meeting was originally scheduled for Jan. 22 but was postponed until last week because of the federal government shutdown.

According to Melissa Gates, northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a national conservation organization, about 100 people braved the weather in an effort to learn more about the administration’s plans to expand oil and gas exploration to the waters off New England and to express their views on the proposal to agency bureaucrats, some of whom ventured to Augusta from as far away as New Orleans.

At the event, there was no hearing or public meeting at which interested parties could deliver comments. Instead, members of the public were moved through an arrangement of “stations” where they could get information from BOEM employees. At the end of the line, another station was available for filing comments in writing or via a computer.

According to Gates, security personnel at the Civic Center locked the doors an hour early, at 6 p.m., presumably to get late-comers to head home before the storm struck.

“The whole process was not accessible and not user-friendly,” Gates said Monday afternoon.

The Surfrider Foundation held its own “hearing” outside the BOEM proceedings to “tell the Trump administration what people think of oil drilling off the coast of Maine,” Gates said.

Kristan Porter, newly elected president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the group, “Maine’s oldest and largest fishing organization,” was completely opposed to the proposal, just as it was when former president Ossie Beal testified before a congressional hearing in 1970 against offshore drilling off the Maine coast.

“The MLA stands before you today to say that we will not allow this to happen on our watch,” Porter said in comments filed with BOEM. “We fought against this nearly 50 years ago and we stand united with Maine’s fishing communities to fight against it today.”

The lobstermen are hardly alone in their objections to the drilling plan.

Earlier this year, all four members of the state’s congressional delegation said they opposed offshore drilling in Northeast waters. In an unusual show of nonpartisan unanimity, Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree are among the co-sponsors of a bill introduced in the House of Representatives that would prohibit gas drilling off the coast of New England. In the Senate, both Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Angus King are co-sponsors of a similar measure.

Closer to home, on March 1 the Maine Legislature unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Rep. Mick Devin (D-Newcastle) asking President Trump to exclude the waters off the Maine coast from any future offshore oil and gas drilling and explanation.

On Monday, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills joined the chorus.

In comments filed with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Mills claimed that the Trump administration purposefully ignored the equally important impact on Maine’s tourism economy when it granted Florida a waiver from the drilling proposal because of the impact on that state’s coastal tourism economy.

Mills already joined other attorneys general from both the West and East coasts to oppose the opening of the outer continental shelf to leases for oil and gas drilling.

The exemption for Florida has rankled the governors, Republican as well as Democrat, of other East Coast states, virtually all of whom oppose drilling along the Eastern Seaboard. The sole exception appears to be Maine Governor Paul LePage, who has suggested that drilling could lower his state’s high energy costs. His office has said that LePage believes any final drilling plan would exclude areas with environmental sensitivity or tourism value.

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]