Feds Seek to Reassure Public About Trump’s Offshore Drilling Plan

(Photos by Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Federal regulators Wednesday held the last of the scheduled information sessions intended to explain President Donald Trump’s plan to dramatically expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and Gulf of Mexico.

The session, in Richmond, Virginia, was held to give the public a chance to comment on the administration’s intention to open 25 swaths of seabed to oil and gas exploration. The Interior Department has already announced the sale of leases on 77.3 million acres off the Gulf Coast for oil will occur on March 21.

More sales, of a total 47 leases, are expected later this year and in 2019.

“I would really like for the folks, when they have an opportunity to engage in the experts … to understand what we do and the process and the law we are operating under,” said Renee Orr, strategic resources chief at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The federal agency is tasked with studying impacts of drilling and collecting public comment related to natural resource mining in the nation’s oceans.

Orr likened the federal leasing process to opening and closing a window. She said while the sites will be opened to exploration and study, some may eventually be reclosed if their prospects prove less promising.

In an executive order signed in April 2017, the president effectively opened every available undeveloped site to exploration all at once.

Wednesday’s open house was held in two rooms at the Four Points by Sheraton Richmond Airport.

In the first, attendees were shown a short video instructing people in the kinds of opinions the Interior Department is seeking.

“Comments that are information rich, specific, geographically focused, and supported by scientific evidence are most likely to impact decision making,” the narrator said as images of sea life flashed on screen. “One informed comment is often more influential than a thousand form letters.”

In the second room, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management officials and representatives of other federal agencies stood ready to explain how the leasing process works, the economic and geologic impacts of drilling, and the safety processes that will be used during exploration and drilling activities.

“We have regulations,” said Michael Saucier, a regional supervisor with the Bureau of Environmental and Safety Enforcement, explaining how proposed drilling projects could be maintained safely.

His agency is tasked with distributing permits and ensuring project operators adhere to their requirements.

Saucier’s  agency is also responsible for issuing incidents of noncompliance when companies violate their permits. He said there are three-tiers of noncompliance: warnings, component shut ins, and what he described as “major shut ins.”

Punishments for these violations can range from orders demanding simple fixes within 14 days to hefty civil fines.

Saucier said in his 33 years with the agency, he’s seen, on average, about 2000 incidents of noncompliance annually. He said that number dropped in recent years after the U.S. pulled back from offshore drilling, but he’s confident the number will remain low as wider drilling and exploration resumes.

His confidence in the system was questioned by those who came out to the event. Among them was Representative Don McEachin, a Democrat elected to representative Virginia’s 4th Congressional District last year.

As he walked from learning station to learning station in the main room, McEachin said he was unhappy about the administration’s plan to allow drilling off the Virginia coast, and was also disturbed that the session to solicit public comment was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday and more than 100 miles from the coastal communities that will be most affected by the plan.

“I’m here to chastise the administration [for holding this event] at this hour, at this place — so far away from the communities that will be impacted by offshore drilling,” McEachin said. “The administration should be transparent and stand tall and articulate their position to those who will be most affected.”

Others were similarly unimpressed with the administration’s efforts to inform the public.

Katie McDoogle, a Richmond resident, said while the open house afforded her with a chance to submit a comment, she felt little assurance that her voice would actually be heard.

“I was hoping this would be a forum where I’d be able to give an opinion,” she said. “I feel there’s a lot of innocent, marine life a stake. But this is not that kind of a forum.”

She also took issue with the instructional video explaining what comments could best influence decision makers.

“It appears BOEM is looking for data-based arguments which means I have to go do a lot of research in order to influence them and I don’t think it would influence them anyway,” she said.

Others felt more positively about the event.

Justin Williams, a spokesperson with the National Ocean Industries Association which represents corporate interests in ocean resource development, said concerns about ocean drilling were overblown.

He pointed to a 2015 Department of Defense report that showed about 90 percent of the proposed leasing blocks could be safely mined without interfering with military activity. Interaction with military resources is a concern for Virginia as Norfolk Naval Base, the  nation’s largest naval base, sits at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Virginia can benefit from both military training and oil and gas activity.” he said. “Domestic oil and gas development and ending our dependence on foreign energy are a national security concern, diversifying our supply geographically will make America safer and more secure in the long run.”

But the report Williams cited also said the drilling activity in the 10 percent of the tracts directly off the Virginia coast could interfere with military activities, and six of the seven leasing blocks off the Mid-Atlantic coast are marked “No Oil and Gas Activity.” The last block could be approved, but with “site specific stipulations,” the report said.

As the meeting wrapped up, Orr seemed satisfied with what she heard and with the information the agencies were able to share with the public.

“It’s a lengthy process, what we’re talking about today, any potential leasing, is 10-15 years in the future,” she said. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow, next week or next month … nothing is decided at this point. It’s the first in many decisions to what will be made to potential oil and gas exploration.”

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