By Patrick Whittle and Marina Villeneuve
Press Herald news story
AUGUSTA – Fishing groups, environmentalists, politicians and tourism advocates plan to use a pair of tailored public hearings this week to oppose the Trump administration’s proposal to expand offshore drilling in the Atlantic and other ocean waters.
The federal government’s meetings in Maine and New Hampshire are part of the nearly two dozen “open houses” put on by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nationwide. Unlike a traditional hearing, the public will meet one-on-one with bureau officials and submit written comments.
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The Trump proposal would vastly expand offshore oil drilling from the Atlantic to the Arctic and Pacific oceans, including in areas off more than a dozen states where drilling is currently blocked.
If approved, it would open 90 percent of the nation’s offshore reserves to development by private companies between 2019 and 2024.
Republican Paul LePage is the only governor on the Atlantic Coast to support President Trump’s proposal, which he’s said could lower high energy costs in a state that is the most dependent on petroleum for home heating in the nation. Spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said the governor’s energy office won’t be submitting any comment until after Wednesday’s public hearing.
Maine state lawmakers passed a resolution calling on Trump to leave Maine out of his plan. And Maine’s congressional delegation has voiced bipartisan opposition.
“So much of our state’s economy and tens of thousands of Maine jobs along our coast depend on our marine and tourism industries,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
LePage’s office has said LePage expects a final drilling plan would exclude areas with environmental sensitivity or tourism value. A Maine Energy Marketers Association representative said the association representing heating oil and other dealers will not be testifying.
In Maine, a coalition including a guide from the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company, the executive director of the Maine Public Health Association and the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association will assemble before the Wednesday meeting to oppose drilling. It’s a motley group, including some organizations that normally have competing interests, such as environmentalists and fishermen.
But the groups share a common fear about what drilling off of Maine could do to the state’s environment and its economy, said Judy Berk, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“Just imagine what a spill could do to our beaches, rocky shores, puffins, lobstering areas and our tourism and fishing industries,” she said.
Berk calls the hearings – which will feature information tables and computers for the public to submit comments – a “sham.”
“This set up is designed to hide Mainers’ vocal opposition to this plan and avoid an opportunity for citizens to get up to a mic and express their views,” she said.
Some organizations that have yet to take a public position on drilling are also keeping a close eye. Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers Association, said members of his group are concerned about what drilling off of Maine could mean for business.
“I can certainly see, personally, the potential negative outcomes of having an oil rig outside your resort,” he said.
National environmental groups have been watching other hearings, and some have raised concerns that the agency isn’t inviting feedback from the public.
The Center for Biological Diversity has helped transport people from coastal communities to BOEM’s drilling meetings, some of which have taken place far from the coast, said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director for the group. The group – which is not helping bus individuals to the New Hampshire and Maine meetings– is opposed to drilling for many reasons, including the possibility of disrupting habitats for endangered right whales, which live in the Gulf of Maine.
The Augusta and Concord meetings are both being held inland. The Center for Biological Diversity wants coastal residents there to “tell officials why this plan is just absolutely atrocious and why there shouldn’t be drilling anywhere,” Monsell said.
“Not just off the coast of New England. Not just in right whale habitats. Anywhere,” she said.