America’s coastal communities have been stirred by the release of the Trump administration’s draft five-year program (2019-2024) for offshore oil and gas drilling. Under Secretary Ryan Zinke, the Department of the Interior aims to expand offshore drilling and exploration to Florida’s Gulf Coast, and new areas in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans – nearly all federal U.S. waters. This is the largest offshore leasing plan ever proposed, overturning the previous administration’s five-year program (2017-2022) that rightly excluded both the Atlantic and Arctic oceans from offshore drilling.
This week the public comment period for the plan will close, but looking back it’s clear that getting feedback from the public—the very people who would be most affected by an oil spill or coastal industrialization was not a priority.
Following the rollout of the draft proposed program, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced a series of public meetings would be held in coastal states, in the name of soliciting feedback from stakeholders. But most of these events were scheduled in state capitals, miles from the coast. Coastal residents – those with the most to lose from oil and gas exploration and development – were given only one chance to attend a meeting in their state. And this inconvenience was compounded by the fact that most hearings took place on weekdays during regular working hours at locations on the outskirts of capital cities, rather than downtown where public transportation is accessible. Given the barriers to attending BOEM’s meetings, an important question remains – are citizens being heard? Someone from coastal San Diego who had to travel over 500 miles (about eight hours) to inland Sacramento to voice their opposition might not think so.
On February 22, miles from the coast, BOEM held one of its public meetings in a Washington, D.C. hotel. The hearing did not attract crowds of coastal residents who would be most affected by the Bureau’s plan. After signing into the event and watching an informational video, attendees were ushered into a career fair-like room to speak with BOEM department experts. During the event, it was hard to keep the mind from wandering to the disastrous repercussions offshore drilling and exploration could have on coastal communities far from Washington, D.C. The paltry amount of oil estimated to be off our shores is hardly worth sacrificing the coastal way of life enjoyed by multi-generational family lobster businesses in Boston, or Virginia Beach surfers, or local hotel owners in the Carolinas.
Over the years, BOEM has moved the meetings away from coastal communities. Hearings with space for coastal residents to speak their truths and share their experiences have been replaced by quiet rooms where Americans are pushed through stations without any public platform of their own. During the previous comment periods for offshore drilling, BOEM heeded requests of coastal states and added additional hearings for the public to attend. Now, those requests, including a letter signed by 140 non-profits, religious organizations and businesses, remain unanswered.
Despite the administration’s radical and unprecedented push to expand offshore oil and gas drilling and exploration, and its lack of public engagement, there is still opportunity for action. Writing and calling your representatives, attending opposition events, speaking out at local town and city council meetings, and spreading the message in your own neighborhood are crucial. Critically, the federal government is still taking public comments on the draft five-year program through the end of this work week. It is imperative that Americans take a stand against offshore drilling. Visit www.oceana.org/ACTNOW to submit a comment today and voice your opposition to drilling off America’s coasts. Later this year the Interior Department will release an updated version of the plan, and there will be yet another opportunity to weigh in. It is important that stakeholders demand to be heard at every point in the process. Together, we can #ProtectOurCoast.