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Trump plan to allow oil drilling off New England unites foes in opposition

Protesters gathered at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston to denounce a plan by the Trump Administration to drill for oil and gas in the waters off New England. David Abel/Globe Staff

For decades, they have done battle — through street protests, in courtrooms, on Beacon Hill. It takes a lot, something broadly and viscerally opposed, to unite the traditional foes.

But the Trump administration’s new plan to allow drilling for oil and gas off the shores of New England has done just that, forging a bipartisan coalition of fishermen, environmental advocates, industry groups, and scientists against the plan.

At a recent press conference held to denounce the plan, Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation noted that the last time he stood on the same side as so many fishermen was some four decades ago, when the federal government last pressed such a proposal.


“It’s ridiculous, and very discouraging, that we’re back here 40 years later,” he said, noting that the previous coalition succeeded in blocking offshore drilling while opponents in other regions failed. “It didn’t make sense then, and it makes less sense now.”

When Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, spoke at the press conference last Monday at the New England Aquarium, she smiled at Shelley, a longtime proponent of fishing regulations.

“Here we are again,” she said, calling the drilling proposal “a disgrace.” “We’re not going to allow it to happen . . . Georges Bank is the richest fishing ground in the world. We have to protect it with our lives.”

In January, the Trump administration announced it was lifting a drilling ban and would allow prospecting for offshore oil and gas deposits in nearly all the coastal waters of the United States.

The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which will oversee the permitting process, estimates that opening the proposed areas could tap some 90 billion barrels of oil and 327 trillion tons of natural gas, potentially a major boost to the nation’s energy reserves.


In the North Atlantic, the bureau estimates that there are about 1.8 billion barrels of oil and 11.8 trillion cubic feet of gas that could potentially be recovered, although those estimates are highly uncertain.

As a result, the bureau may authorize surveys of the region’s waters, which environmentalists fear would disturb the Gulf of Maine’s delicate ecosystem and harm its marine life, especially mammals such as North Atlantic right whales, among the most endangered species on the planet.

At a public meeting in Boston Tuesday, bureau officials met with concerned residents and laid out their plan.

They explained how offshore drilling has been part of the nation’s energy policy since the 1970s, when Congress sought to reduce US reliance on oil imports after the Arab oil embargo. Since then, Congress has repeatedly reauthorized drilling in certain areas, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, they noted.

“The goal is for the nation to be more independent,” said Bill Brown, the bureau’s chief environmental officer, in an interview at the meeting. His team has been hosting similar meetings across the country to collect public opinion.

He said they would use the public comments to draft an environmental impact statement, which Brown expects to be completed by the end of the year.

“We’re looking at what areas should be excluded,” he said.

After that, the bureau intends to issue a plan that would be subject to additional public comments and permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which will review whether drilling could affect endangered species.


“It’s premature to judge what will happen,” Brown said.

While the bureau could award bids to companies interested in leasing areas for potential drilling by the end of next year, it would take extensive surveys and years before derricks are in place to extract the fossil fuels, he said.

“I would say it would be at least 10 years before anyone started drilling,” Brown said.

It could take even longer if there’s litigation, which there’s sure to be if Trump approves drilling off New England.

In a letter sent last week to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Governor Charlie Baker joined the state’s entire congressional delegation in declaring their opposition to drilling in the region’s waters.

“We write to convey unequivocally that we do not support the inclusion of the North Atlantic” in the plan, they wrote. The region’s waters are “intrinsic to the social fabric and heritage of our coastal communities,” they added.

The state’s marine activity — namely fishing, tourism, and transportation — contributes more than $17 billion to the state’s economy, they said. In addition to right whales, the region’s waters provide a “vital habitat” to endangered sea turtles, marine birds, and other species that rely on the delicate ecosystem, they added.

They also noted that the state is now reviewing bids for offshore wind projects that are expected to generate large amounts of renewable energy.

“For more than three decades, the exploration or leasing for oil and gas in the North Atlantic has not been justified, and we believe this holds true today more than ever,” they wrote.


Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the drilling plan “reckless and arbitrary,” contending it threatens the state’s 1,500 miles of coastline.

At a time when Massachusetts has sought to curb its carbon emissions and is preparing for rising sea levels, allowing drilling in the area would run “directly counter to state policies that have made Massachusetts a national leader in addressing climate change,” she said.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which stretched across nearly 70,000 square miles off the Gulf Coast and caused billions of dollars in damage, illustrates the potential harm that could come to the state, Healey said.

“Given the movement of the tides and marine animals, a spill anywhere in the Atlantic could wreak havoc on our state,” Healey wrote in her own letter to Zinke. “Even minor spills could be catastrophic for sensitive marine and coastal resources — and the livelihoods that depend on them.”

Similar appeals to Zinke came from groups ranging from the Massachusetts Sierra Club to the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

Many of those opponents attended last week’s meeting to protest, carrying signs with messages such as “No Oil on Mass Beaches” and “Cod Says No Drilling!”

Meghan O'Reilly, 59, of Newport and Jill Lewandowski, a biologist from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, joined protesters at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston. David Abel/Globe Staff

During the meeting, Meghan O’Reilly, who wore a sticker on her shirt that read “Drilling is Killing,” sharply questioned one of the bureau’s officials, Jill Lewandowski, a biologist who serves as chief of the division of environmental assessment.


“How can the Gulf of Maine even be considered for this?” asked O’Reilly, 59, who volunteers for a marine mammal rescue team in Newburyport.

Lewandowski responded: “This is still a process that hasn’t been completed.”

O’Reilly invoked the fragile state of right whales.

“I don’t know how anyone in good conscience could say there should be drilling here,” she said. “It would be murder for the whales — murder.”

Lewandowski said she was familiar with the plight of the right whales. Over the past year, 18 have been found dead, and no calves have been spotted this season.

She also acknowledged the potential dangers to the region’s ecosystem.

“I don’t know why this is happening,” she said of the drilling proposal. “This is why we’re here — to listen.”

But O’Reilly said she worried that the meetings were just for show and that the Trump administration would do what it wanted, regardless of how the public feels.

“This is ridiculous,” she said before walking away.

David Abel/Globe Staff

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.