The message was clear: Don’t even think of drilling for natural gas or oil in the Atlantic Ocean anywhere near the Long Island coast.
And it was unanimous, delivered by every one of the dozens of elected officials, environmentalists and everyday citizens who braved a nor’easter on Friday to converge on Brookhaven Town Hall, where they sounded off on a proposal from the federal Department of the Interior to open up much of the east coast to exploration by energy companies.
Friday’s hearing was chaired by Kate MacGregor, one of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s deputies. She and an assistant, who called up the speakers who had signed in to testify and monitored their time at the microphone, sat alone at an expansive dais in the large hall that was filled with several hundred very vocal opponents.
The meeting was arranged by U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, who opposes the drilling proposal and who, at a press conference last month, vowed to press the Department of the Interior, which had scheduled hearings on the matter in Albany, to meet with Long Island constituents on their own turf.
In a brief opening statement, Mr. Zeldin foreshadowed many of the speakers who would follow, stating that drilling would jeopardize the environment, and in turn, the economy of Long Island. “Protecting our environment goes hand in hand with protecting commerce in our region, where so many jobs and small businesses depend on scenic beaches, parks and clean water to attract visitors and economic growth,” he said.
Although Mr. Zeldin credited Secretary Zinke for agreeing to hold a hearing on Long Island before the public comment period ends on Thursday, March 8, other speakers criticized the late notice of Friday’s meeting, which was announced just two days ahead of time.
“It is absurd that the federal government is holding a meeting for public comment with absolutely no notice,” said 9th District Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino. She said those who wanted to testify were forced to scramble to prepare. “We are left wondering whether or not the federal government wants to hear what we have to say on Long Island,” she said.
Two weeks earlier, Ms. Pellegrino said she had joined with other members of the Assembly to hold their own hearing on the Department of the Interior’s plans.
“Our assembly hearing focused on how drilling for oil and gas would impact water quality, coastal management, fisheries and the potential for increased oil spills and pollution if such drilling were permitted off the shores of Long Island,” she said.
That hearing stretched on for six hours. “Our assembly hearing lasted as long as it did because we stayed until every attendee had the opportunity to speak, and I believe you owe it to us to do the same,” she said.
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. also urged the Department of the Interior to shelf its plans.
“Sometimes, the battle you see is between the environment and the economy in Washington. That’s not the case on Long Island,” he said. “Our environment is our economy, and the reason that we have such a strong economy on Long Island already is because we have a clean environment.”
Like other speakers, he urged the federal government to embrace renewable energy. “This is not a case of nimbyism in that we don’t want any energy projects in our district,” he said. “We do, but we want clean energy.”
County Legislator Bridget Fleming also cited the short notice and said many “environmental advocates have rushed to prepare statements for this discussion.”
She said she and group of legislators had submitted a letter urging the Department of the Interior to remove New York from its list, just as it earlier removed Florida because of its tourist economy.
“Suffolk County is home to more than 100 public beaches,” she said. Those beaches and the rest of the coastal environment “form the underpinning of our tourism economy,” she added. “The proposed program will cause substantial harm to our county’s tourism revenue and labor market as it poses a threat to those precious marine resources.”
“It’s too much at stake not to be here to speak for the stakeholders, for every commercial clammer, every recreational clammer, everybody who is going to fish or come visit the Hamptons top enjoy the beach,” offered Southampton Town Trustee Scott Horowitz.
The drilling proposal contradicts New York’s efforts to encourage clean, renewable energy sources, said Carrie Meeks Gallagher of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“Under the leadership of Governor Cuomo, New York State has adopted one of the most ambitious clean energy goals in the country,” she said. “The Department of the Interior’s proposal will harm our continued effort to preserve and enhance the quality of life of New Yorkers and could disrupt existing plans to develop clean offshore wind generation.”
Environmentalists also turned in force, with representatives from the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and local organizations lining up to speak.
“We have worked to preserve our estuaries, our bays, our drinking water, our land,” said Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Who are you to threaten that? How easily is it that the federal government can create a policy that threatens the place we call home.”
Kevin McAllister, the director of Defend H20, listed a number of major oil spills over the decades and the long-term decimation they caused to wildlife.
“The risk and impact of catastrophic spills are not considered in the analysis,” he said. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and where.”
Larry Swanson, the interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, agreed. “If this proposal goes forward, there is no question that oil will sully our beaches,” he said, adding that even small spills could have big impacts. “We have listened to the risk analysis before. It means nothing.”
Alison Chase of the Natural Resources Council said drilling anywhere off the east coast could harm New York’s beaches. “If the Atlantic region falls victim in much the same manner as the Gulf of Mexico,” she said, referring to the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, “a spill alongside the east coast would devastate the Atlantic’s marine life and communities.”
Louise Harrison of Save the Sound questioned if the risk of exploration would be worth the payoff. “As we understand it, the Atlantic Ocean contains less than 4 percent of the nation’s total oil reserves and less than 3 percent of its gas reserves,” she said. “The potential impacts of attempting to tap what may amount to be a paltry supply are too great to reasonably consider.”
“Simply put, offshore oil and gas exploration and development puts too much at risk and is contradictory to all the work, the hard work, that New York is dedicating to establishing our state as a renewable energy leader,” said Carl LoBue of the Nature Conservancy.
“‘Drill, baby, drill’ is truly a step backward for U.S. energy policy that will benefit a few financially while accelerating the impacts of global climate change, the likes we have never seen,” said Aaron Virgin, the vice president of the Group for East End.
Colleen Henn of the Surfrider Foundation said she had asked members of her organization to summarize the proposal in one word: “Ludicrous, backwards, absurd, nearsighted, dangerous, misguided, disgusting, greedy, irreversible, irresponsible, illegal, horrific” were some of the responses, she said.
Anthony Coron, a North Haven resident also spoke against the proposal. “I’m just furious that the administration has come up with this idea,” he said. “It is so contrary to the good work that has been done throughout my lifetime.”
“It’s not a political issue,” he added. “It’s a scientific issue, and we have to do it right. Otherwise we are killing ourselves.”
“As a country, we were moving swiftly toward a renewable energy future of solar and wind until this current, science-denying administration set us back 50 years,” said Robert Carioscia of Sag Harbor. “Environmental degradation, climate change and global warming are real. The time to stop offshore exploration and drilling and save Long Island — and the planet — for our grandchildren and future generations is right now.”