Lobstermen and environmentalists urged lawmakers on Friday to prohibit oil and gas drilling in Maine’s coastal waters to send a message to federal officials as they consider a dramatic expansion of offshore energy exploration.
While some observers dismissed the proposal as symbolic given Maine’s lack of oil or gas reserves, supporters said Maine must join other New England states in opposing activities that threaten the health of waters critical to the state’s economy.
The Trump administration is finalizing a five-year energy plan that, as originally proposed in early 2018, would reopen the North Atlantic and 90 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf to fossil fuel exploration. While the final version is expected to be different, it is unclear whether the Trump administration will still seek to lift the decades-long ban on oil and gas exploration in the North Atlantic.
Bills pending in Maine and other states would not only ban drilling within 3 miles of shore – the area subject to state jurisdiction – but would also prohibit energy companies from shipping or piping oil and gas to onshore facilities.
“The state bills that are proposed right now are not actually going to stop the federal program from advancing,” said Melissa Gates, a Cushing resident and Northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit active on ocean issues. “What they are going to do, if we pass them, is provide a blanket of protection across the Atlantic from oil and gas resources being shipped across state waters.”
Government officials all along the Atlantic seaboard are opposed to the initial proposal from the U.S. Department of the Interior to reopen areas of the Atlantic to energy exploration because of the potential economic and environmental impact of oil spills. The proposal has also encountered strong public opposition in Maine.
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation oppose allowing oil and gas exploration in the North Atlantic. And Democratic Gov. Janet Mills quickly reversed course from the position of her predecessor, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, by withdrawing Maine from participation in the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition that supports offshore oil and gas exploration.
On Friday, representatives of Maine’s lobster industry joined environmentalists in supporting the bill to prohibit both exploration and related activities in state-controlled coastal waters.
Julie Eaton, a Stonington lobsterwoman who chairs the legislative arm of the Maine Lobstering Union, said her industry pumped more than $2 billion into the state’s economy last year. Eaton said oil and gas drilling could lead to harbors and coves “stripped of wildlife” because of a spill, not to mention the threats posed to whales and other marine organisms from exploration-related seismic blasting.
“Maine coastal communities strongly oppose offshore oil and gas drilling and exploration,” Eaton told members of the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “Along the Maine coast, communities rely on healthy ocean ecosystems to support jobs in fishing, recreation and ecotourism. Just imagine what an oil spill would mean to our communities, our islands, our coast and our state.”
Neither Maine nor its coastal waters will likely ever be a destination for oil and gas exploration companies. That’s because the rocks underneath the region were “overcooked” by the intense heat generated during geological events responsible for the now-worn Appalachian Mountains hundreds of millions of years ago, Maine Geological Survey director Robert Marvinney told lawmakers.
The old granite and metamorphic rocks found all along Maine’s coastline and islands extend far out into the Gulf of Maine, so those areas are “devoid” of the conditions needed to create reserves of oil or gas, Marvinney said.
“The real potential – and it’s small – is at George’s Bank,” Marvinney said. “Between here and there, there really is none.”
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection offered qualified support to the bill sponsored by Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle. DEP officials did raise concerns, however, that the current language of the bill could inadvertently prohibit the importation of heating oil or other oil/gas products to existing businesses companies in Maine. The department urged lawmakers to correct or clarify the language.
It is unclear when the Trump administration will finalize its plan for offshore exploration and drilling.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this week that he was not sure when the report would be done. He also would not commit that the administration would accede to states’ requests to remove the areas off their shorelines from potential exploration zones.
But in an exchange, Maine Sen. Angus King pressed Bernhardt for his personal assurance “that the position of the state, its congressional delegation, will be a major consideration in making this decision?”
Bernhardt responded, “Absolutely, it’s required.”
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had predicted that Maine officials would be “very happy” with the final proposal given the few oil and gas reserves or infrastructure off Maine’s coastline..