Ocean City Sentinel
By Eric Avedissian
OCEAN CITY — Under gray winter skies, officials gathered by the Ocean City Music Pier on Feb. 26 for a news conference opposing offshore drilling along the Atlantic coast.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has proposed the National Outer Continental Shelf Oil & Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which opens the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Florida, for oil and gas exploration and drilling.
Politicians, environmentalists and business owners concerned over a proposal by the Trump administration to allow 47 leases in 26 offshore study areas in the Atlantic Ocean joined together to oppose the plan.
After announcing the proposed plan, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke ruled out oil and gas drilling off the Florida coast, citing tourism as an economic driver.
The Obama administration removed the Atlantic coast from the 2017-2022 plan, but President Donald Trump reversed that, possibly opening up the coast to oil drilling and seismic testing.
Cape May County Chamber of Commerce President Vicki Clark said oil drilling “poses a threat” to Cape May County, Atlantic County and the entire New Jersey coastline.
“I’d like to remind Secretary Zinke that in his comments he has said any decision for drilling along the Atlantic coast would carry the influence of local officials and local residents of those communities. We don’t want it here. Secretary Zinke, I hope you’re listening,” Clark said.
According to the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, since the plan was proposed in January, more than 1,200 federal, state, county and municipal officials along with 41,000 businesses and 500,000 families have voiced their opposition.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, noted the potentially disastrous effects oil drilling could have on a fragile maritime ecosystem and seasonal tourism economy.
“It’s about jobs and the economy. All of the small businesses are affected. Everything that can go south and negative in a heartbeat if something went wrong. Why would we want to gamble with something like this?,” LoBiondo said.
He said the BOEM is accepting public comments on this proposed plan until March 9, and urged the public to voice their opposition.
Comments can be mailed to Ms. Kelly Hammerie, Chief, National Oil and Gas Leasing Program, Development and Coordination Branch, Leasing Division, Office of Strategic Resources, BOEM (VAMLD), 45600 Woodland Rd., Mailstop VAM-LD, Sterling, Va. 20166.
“I don’t know any other issues that would bring the people that are here with us today together to speak with one voice. That’s pretty powerful,” LoBiondo said.
Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton recalled when a French tanker, the Anitra, spilled crude oil into the mouth of Delaware Bay in 1996, resulting in tar balls washing ashore.
“That was a nightmare for us. Everybody thought we had a big oil spill and it was all over the media right before Labor Day,” Thornton said. “We’ve got another nightmare on our hands.”
He said oil spills such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident, in which 210 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico, caused $1 billion in losses to the fishing industry and $20 billion to tourism businesses in that region.
Thornton said Cape May County’s $6 billion tourism industry and its commercial fishing port — ranked among the top 10 commercial fishing ports in the nation — are “just as important to us here as they are in Florida.”
“Donald Trump, protect home first,” Thornton said. “That oil resource is a finite resource. Protect it right now because it’ll be more valuable in the future than what it is if we pump it right now.”
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said those opposed to oil drilling off New Jersey must work together and “send a clear message” to those in Washington, D.C.
“In Ocean City, we’re very proud of our Boardwalk and our beach. Standing here today, looking over this ocean, serves as a reminder of what’s at stake,” Gillian said. “This priceless environment is not just an attraction for our guests, it’s an asset to anybody who owns property or who owns businesses in Ocean City. We can’t afford to risk our economy and our home.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said there was “no way, no how” the district would support offshore drilling, and said he sponsored legislation blocking oil drilling three miles off New Jersey’s coast.
“If there was a leak or a problem … we would never truly recover and we’ve seen that in other areas of the country,” Van Drew said.
Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said “tourism means too much” to residents and businesses to allow oil drilling off the coast.
“We don’t need it. We don’t want it,” Mazzeo said. “The coast of New Jersey is too important. Tourism and the environment are two things we have to keep in place. … It’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democratic issue. We’re all standing unified to take this fight on because we don’t want it.”
Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam said natural resources should be cherished.
“The future of our world depends on making sure we take care of Mother Earth,” Gilliam said. “We do not want drilling offshore of our towns and our neighbors.”
Cindy Zipf, of Clean Ocean Action, said it was impressive to see the group of different interests joining together to fight against oil drilling and exploration off New Jersey.
“The ocean is unbelievably giving,” Zipf said. “It gives us the resources we turn into tourism, we turn it onto our plates with lobsters and fish, it sustains so many middle-income families and it supports all of our souls. … All it asks is for us to keep her healthy and free from harm.”
Margot Walsh, executive director of Jersey Shore Partnership, an advocacy group for beach protection and preservation, said shore communities generate about $22 billion of New Jersey’s annual $44 billion tourism economy.
“The shore is integral to the people of New jersey, to the region, to the country and beyond,” Walsh said. “I think it’s most appropriate that we’re here in Ocean City today. The tourism economy is the economy of the Jersey shore.”
Walsh called the shore communities the “jewels of New Jersey” and the first to be affected by an oil spill.
“Oil spills know no boundaries and travel fast distances. For us in New Jersey, an oil spill in the Gulf threatens every community along the Atlantic Ocean,” Walsh said. “We are not talking about if there would be an oil spill. We are talking about when.”