By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — As opposition intensifies against offshore drilling along the East Coast and most of the coastal United States, Rhode Island has a unique tool to disrupt the proposal.
The Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or Ocean SAMP, was enacted in 2010 as a rulebook for managing fisheries, research, and conservation in offshore waters. The first-of-its-kind guide gave rise to the Block Island Wind Farm. Now this planning tool can challenge offshore exploration and drilling for fossil fuels.
Grover Fugate, director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state agency that facilitated the Ocean SAMP, said provisions of the plan require that offshore drilling pass three separate reviews by the state agency.
The Ocean SAMP evaluates any projects in federal waters up to 30 miles offshore. State waters extend 3 miles offshore and federal waters reach an additional 200 miles within the outer continental shelf. Fugate is seeking to expand the jurisdiction of the Ocean SAMP oversight area to included all federal waters.
As it stands, CRMC has the authority to examine drilling leases, oil and gas exploration plans, and the structural development designs for any extraction proposal. The evaluation includes modeling of oil spills and impacts on fishing. Public meetings would also be part of the reviews.
“The Ocean SAMP has some of the strongest policies in the nation relative to this type of review. So it puts Rhode Island in a very good position to protect our existing industries,” Fugate said at the Feb. 13 meeting of the CRMC board.
Fugate explained that the approval of offshore drilling leases by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) could take between two and 10 years. If BOEM’s drilling plan is approved, fossil-fuel companies would then bid for leasing contracts. Leaseholders would conduct seismic blasting for oil and gas reserves and start drilling if deposits are discovered.
Seismic blasting, also called air-gun surveys, are considered a threat to endangered North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales, dolphins, turtles and fish. The air guns are typically towed behind boats, blaring extremely loud sounds though the seafloor to search for hydrocarbons. The blasting can occur for days and weeks at a time.
Fugate said oil drilling would be more harmful to the Atlantic outer continental shelf than it is to the Gulf of Mexico. Oil seepage occurs naturally in the gulf and species there have adapted. But “our (offshore) environments are very sensitive. We have a lot of endangered species that would be eliminated if there was a potential spill. So we would have to be a lot more careful than another type of development in this area," he said.
Nearly every state and more than 160 cities and towns along the East and West coasts have taken action to oppose opening the outer continental shelf to fossil-fuel extraction over threats to tourism, fishing and the environment.
“Fortunately because of the Ocean SAMP we’re probably the best platform that any state has to try to deal with this,” Fugate said.
Estimates of oil and gas deposits along the Atlantic outer continental shelf are about one-twelfth of those in the Gulf of Mexico, according to BOEM.
Several exploratory oil and gas wells were drilled off the East Coast between 1947 and 1980, but few produced gas or oil, according to BOEM. Extensive seismic surveying was conducted in the North Atlantic between 1966 and 1990. Plans to open up drilling off Virginia in 2011 were scrapped after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico a year earlier. The spill led to a moratorium on drilling in federal waters off the Eastern Seaboard between 2010 and 2017. President Clinton enacted a drilling moratorium along the Atlantic coast between 1998 and 2012.