August 28, 2017
It was a quiet event. No protest chants. Just a couple of dozen sign-carrying opponents of offshore drilling who huddled near the King Neptune statue at the Oceanfront.
But Laura Wood Habr, the organizer, felt backed in spirit by millions of others who make the Atlantic Coast their home and who, she’s confident, agree it shouldn’t be exposed to a potential oil spill.
That threat became more real on Friday when President Donald Trump signed an executive order reopening a review of whether the federal waters off Virginia and other East Coast states should be leased for oil and gas exploration.
Habr is an Oceanfront restaurant owner and vice president of the Virginia Beach Restaurant Association, which is among a growing number of business groups along the coast opposed to offshore drilling.
The groups teamed up with environmental activists and helped persuade the Interior Department, under then-President Barack Obama, to give up last year on its idea of leasing some Atlantic waters for oil and gas exploration.
On Friday, Habr and other drilling opponents took deep breaths and geared up for returning to the fight – but in this case, facing a president who has made absolutely clear that he wants a dramatic increase in offshore leasing.
“Today we’re unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs,” Trump said of his executive order, which starts a process of shifting what could be tens of millions of acres along all of the nation’s ocean coasts into oil and gas production.
The president said the government can no longer justify keeping 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf free from fossil fuel extraction.
In addition to reopening the 2017-2022 offshore leasing program to review, Trump’s order seeks to roll back a move by Obama in December to place vast sections of the Arctic – as well as 31 Atlantic canyons, including the Norfolk Canyon 70 miles off Virginia Beach – indefinitely off-limits to oil, gas and minerals exploration. And Trump’s order calls for federal regulators to expedite permits for companies seeking to do seismic surveys for potential oil and gas deposits.
Habr and others opposed to such exploration said any economic gains from offshore development are finite and not worth risking the long-lasting damage to the environment – and coastal economies – that could be caused by oil and gas activity.
Not here, at least.
“It’s not a good business plan,” she said.
Trump’s order on offshore drilling came on the eve of Saturday’s People’s Climate March in Washington. Organizers are planning on tens of thousands of people marching from the Capitol and eventually surrounding the White House.
Among them will be about 300 Hampton Roads residents from various environmental groups led by the Sierra Club, said Zach Jarjoura, a local manager for the organization. A couple of double-decker buses will be part of the caravan, he said.
“We’re definitely going to bring our ‘Don’t Drill VA’ signs,” he said.
They’ll be part of the broader theme of the march – that it’s vital to turn away from fossil fuels, in order to slow the carbon emissions fueling the planet’s warming and, with that, also slow the seas’ rising.
The Newport News-based Southeast CARE Coalition, which focuses on environmental issues in lower-income communities in Hampton Roads, also has organized a group of more than 80 people who plan to travel to the march. Erica Holloman, a co-founder of the coalition, said the president should be promoting renewable energy, not fossil fuels.
It makes no sense for an area as vulnerable to sea level rise as Hampton Roads to be part of an oil-drilling expansion, she said.
That’s one of the messages that Habr, Jarjoura and others said they will be delivering in the coming months in an effort to persuade Hampton Roads city councils to adopt anti-drilling resolutions. The elected bodies of more than 75 communities along the East Coast have taken such positions, but only three of those are in Virginia, all on the Eastern Shore.
Habr said she’s grown more optimistic that the Virginia Beach City Council, which switched from pro-drilling to a neutral position in 2015, will join the “no” movement.
Environmental activists said they plan to target the councils of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and possibly others, and cite concerns repeatedly raised by military leaders that offshore oil and gas activity would interfere with Navy training and other defense operations.