Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Rhode Island’s governor and members of Congress are calling for an all-out effort to oppose President Trump’s plan for offshore drilling along the Eastern seaboard. They warned of the environmental and economic risks to the state’s fishing and tourism industries. They urged the public to submit comments on the proposal to the Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) and to show their opposition at a scheduled Feb. 28 public workshop in Providence.
Referencing the six commercial fishermen in the audience at at Feb. 12 press event, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he planned to advance a bill signed by all New England senators to ban offshore drilling off the New England coast. Whitehouse called the offshore drilling proposal a “dumb idea” and blamed the fossil-fuel industry for directing the Trump administration to enact it.
“This will not happen. Whatever it takes to prevent it, we will see takes place,” Whitehouse said.
Gov. Gina Raimondo promised to lobby governors of coastal states to pass resolutions opposing the offshore drilling plan.
“This is backwards. We ought to be moving forward for offshore wind farms, not backwards for offshore oil drilling,” she said.
Raimondo also restated her intent to have Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke follow through on his promise to meet her in Rhode Island and discuss the fossil-fuel project. Several East Coast governors called Zinke after he met with Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Scott apparently convinced Zinke to exempt his state from the offshore drilling plan. Although there is skepticism of the agreement after Zinke’s office backtracked somewhat on that promise and legal questions of such an exemption surfaced.
Whitehouse and Raimondo were asked whether a state or regional carbon tax would put economic pressure on Trump and the fossil-fuel industry. Both said they favor a national or multi-state fee on fossil fuels. However, Whitehouse said his carbon tax bill in the Senate won’t advance until the head of the Senate is a Democrat.
“The Republicans are keenly interested in trying to shovel this issue under the rug as much as they can to keep the fossil-fuel money flowing into their party. It’s a sad state of affairs,” Whitehouse said.
Raimondo said she favors advancing a carbon tax along with public pushback to offshore drilling.
The Feb. 12 event was held at the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus. URI president David Dooley mentioned that offshore drilling threatens the school’s coastal and offshore science programs.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., sponsored the House version of the New England Coastal Protection Act, which was signed by all New England members of the House of Representatives.
Cicilline noted that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 polluted 1,100 miles of coastline, caused $8.7 billion in economic damage and wiped out 22,000 jobs. The chance of another spill have only increased after the Environmental Protection Agency lifted safety and pollution rules for offshore drilling, he said.
Cicilline and Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said the federal action interferes with the strong relationship between regulators, the fishing industry and scientists.
“Wherever big oil goes, pollution follows. And we've seen that again and again,” Coit said.
URI marine ecologist Jeremy Collie said an offshore oil spill would harm near-shore fish and ecosystems. Collie noted that the offshore fisheries are already being diminished by climate change. And any new fossil fuels taken from the sea will be outmatched by the wind turbines planned for the area, he said.
The Feb. 28 BOEM public meeting will be held at the Marriott Hotel, 1 Orms St. in Providence from 3-7 p.m. The format won’t allow for verbal testimony, but instead offers one-on-one discussions with offshore experts and engineers. Environmental groups such as Save The Bay and the Rhode Island Chapter of the Sierra Club have planned protests and rallies before and during the meeting. The comment period ends March 8.