NARRAGANSETT — Describing it as “reckless,” “disastrous,” and “a dumb idea,” federal and state officials vowed Monday to fight the proposal by the Department of the Interior to lift the ban on oil drilling in the waters off Rhode Island.
Chaired by Gov. Gina Raimondo, the event at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay campus featured several speakers; U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Rep. James Langevin and U.S. Rep. David Cicillini, all Democrats, as well as Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit and University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Jeremy Collie.
Also attending were several state legislators, representatives from commercial and recreational fishing organizations, and environmental advocacy groups.
Gov. Raimondo immediately drew attention to the ocean, which was clearly visible through the picture window behind the speakers.
“Can you imagine a better backdrop for an event of this kind?” she said. “I should just throw these talking points away and say ‘don’t put that at risk.’”
Raimondo said it was “with a sense of urgency” that she and other legislators were sending a clear message to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that the 400 miles of Rhode Island coastline should not be put at risk.
“We will not allow offshore drilling off our coast,” she said. “We ought to be moving forward with offshore wind farms, not backwards to offshore oil drilling …. The risks are grave to Rhode Island. A hundred-thousand commercial fishing jobs. Fishing is real and vibrant and growing in Rhode Island, and we’re not going to put that at risk.”
Tourism contributes $5 billion a year to the Rhode Island economy, which in turn supports 40,000 jobs. The governor has contacted Secretary Zinke to ask whether Rhode Island could be given an exemption similar to the one given to Florida on the basis of its importance to the economy of the state. She has also invited him to visit Rhode Island, but to date has not received a response.
Sen. Whitehouse evoked the disastrous North Cape oil spill on 1996, in which a barge carrying heating oil ran aground on Moonstone Beach and leaked 828,000 gallons of oil into coastal and offshore waters. Hundreds of seabirds and millions of lobsters and other marine animals were killed.
“It does us no good when these things happen,” he said. “Oil and Narragansett Bay do not mix at all and we need to make sure we are standing up to protect our fisheries, our shoreline communities, our beach tourism, our fishing community … The thing that’s pretty astounding about where we are is that President Trump never consulted about this, never consulted with the delegation, never consulted with the governor.”
In January, Whitehouse and Massachusetts Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the New England Coastal Protection Act, which would ban offshore drilling off the New England Coast. The bill, which Cicillini also introduced in the House of Representatives, has broad bipartisan support.
U.S. Rep. James Langevin described the proposal as threatening not only Rhode Island’s economy but its very identity.
“It is part of our identity,” he said. “We are the Ocean State, and we speak with one voice, loud and clear, to oppose the Trump administration’s efforts to allow offshore drilling…If Secretary Zinke can, for miraculous reasons, heed the call from Governor [Rick] Scott in Florida that it would damage their coastline, then certainly, the same could be said for the coast of Rhode Island. There are a number of things that we’re working on to make sure that this drilling plan never sees the light of day.”
Cicillini pointed out that proposed rollbacks of safety regulations would make accidents at offshore oil rigs more likely.
“At the same time as the President unilaterally opened our state towards drilling, he also directed his department of environmental management to roll back some very important Obama era safety rules that sought to curb accidents and reduce pollution from oils drilling,” he said.
Coit said if drilling were to be permitted, environmental damage would be inevitable .
“Where big oil goes, pollution follows, and we’ve seen that again and again,” she said. “After the North Cape spill off the coast of Matunuck, nobody was fishing there for years and years. Squid fishermen that usually fish that area weren’t there because there were no squid…These are creatures that are critical to our fishing industry and they will suffer when we have the inevitable spills and pollution from big oil.”
Collie described the impacts that drilling could have on the marine ecosystem.
“There are discharges of drilling fluids and cuttings are released into the water column that could impact the eggs and larvae of fish,” he said. “There’s loss of habitat for fish and fisheries. Of course, there’s the possibility of oil spills and even an oil blowout.”
Drilling, Collie explained, even 100 miles out to sea on the outer continental shelf, would still affect coastal waters.
“The nearshore and offshore ecosystems are connected,” he said. “Many of the fish species that we see and catch in Narragansett Bay undertake seaward migrations to the outer continental shelf, even to the very edge of the continental slope. Likewise, many Rhode Island fishermen fish on the outer continental shelf.”
Among the fishermen in attendance were Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association Director Chris Brown and Dave Monti, charter boat captain and Vice President of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association.
Brown said the drilling proposal was a threat to the entire fishing culture.
“New England is all a coastal community, with just a few people who moved inland on us after it got crowded,” he said. “What’s good for the industry is good for New England and we have made so many investments in preserving our relationship with the ocean in a healthy way that this is something for us to rally against.”
“I look out the window, as the governor said, and I see the bridge in the background,” Monti said. “I’m taking hundreds of my customers fishing right outside this window, catching ground fish, scup, summer flounder. To think that oil would disturb this is unthinkable."
Save the Bay Executive Director Jonathan Stone said it was important for drilling opponents to make their opinions known as early as possible.
“There are a lot of hurdles that have to be crossed before drilling takes place but if you don’t get on it early and express the popular will early in the process, these things can have some momentum. They build,” he said.
Raimondo said she hoped to meet soon with Zinke.
“I’m going to be in Washington for the National Governors’ Association of the 23rd, 24th and 25th, and I’ve requested a meeting with him when I’m there,” she said. “He promised me he would come here.”
The governor also encouraged Rhode Islanders who oppose drilling to come to a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meeting at the Providence Marriott on Feb. 28 and to sign petitions which will be delivered to the Department of the Interior and BOEM. The petition is on the Save the Bay website: https://www.change.org/p/protect-our-coast-stop-offshore-drilling.