ANNAPOLIS — Environmental groups opposed to allowing offshore drilling near the Maryland coast picked up bipartisan support Tuesday ahead of an open house by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Officials in Mississippi, however, where a similar meeting was held on the issue Tuesday, are expressing support for President Donald Trump’s proposal to open the way for greatly expanded U.S. offshore oil and gas drilling.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, and a leading environmental official in Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration, attended a news conference to voice opposition, not far from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay — the nation’s largest estuary.
“We’re going to fight this plan with everything we’ve got,” Frosh said.
It’s one of a number of events that are being held around the country on offshore drilling. An open house held in Jackson, Mississippi was attended by barely a handful of people in a hotel ballroom, as a light snow shut down much of the state. In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant, a strong supporter of Trump, said Tuesday that he supports the plan and won’t seek an exemption.
Mark Belton, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, reiterated Maryland’s “steadfast opposition to any potential or proposed development, exploration, leasing or production of oil and gas in the Atlantic Ocean as proposed by the Draft Five Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program.”
The officials joined members of a variety of environmental groups, who highlighted the bipartisan opposition.
“We all say, ‘thank you’ because we’re all aligned on the same page,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “How cool is that?”
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan, whose city on a barrier island on the Atlantic Ocean is about 115 miles from Annapolis, also expressed his opposition to offshore drilling.
They spoke before an open house in an Annapolis hotel, where federal officials stood by signs explaining the significance of oil exploration and the process of how federal officials would proceed.
“I come to these meetings actually welcoming rather than not welcoming the people who are here because of environmental concerns because it helps my staff to hear people and learn,” said Bill Brown, chief environmental officer for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In Jackson, Mississippi, Andrew Whitehurst, director of programs for the Gulf Restoration Network, a New Orleans-based environmental group, said he remained concerned about U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to move forward with considering drilling in almost every area off the U.S. coast.
Whitehurst said he’s also concerned that the Trump administration is watering down rules designed to present a repeat of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which harmed marine life and fouled coasts widely across the Gulf of Mexico. A 9-cent-per-barrel tax for oil spill response has also lapsed.
“Our position is that this rule to open the Outer Continental Shelf is coming with other bad things,” Whitehurst said.
Most areas along the Gulf Coast from the middle of Alabama westward are already open for drilling, and BOEM spokesman John Filostrat said Zinke’s proposal calls for continuing with twice-yearly lease sales in those areas.
Bryant, however, said he supports the plan and won’t seek an exemption from drilling for waters off of Mississippi because it would keep activity south of Mississippi’s barrier islands in federal waters.
“The revenue from the leases would be helpful in funding things like education, health care and infrastructure,” Bryant’s office said in a statement.
Some business groups including Mississippi’s state chamber of commerce are also voicing support, saying the move could help create jobs and cut energy bills.
Michael Bostic, a pipeline retiree and volunteer for conservative group FreedomWorks, drove through the snow to attend the Jackson meeting. He said he supports the government cooperating with the industry it’s regulating.
“I think this is actually very good,” Bostic said of the expansion proposal. “They will sort out where they need to do drilling, where it’s economical and where it’s not.”
Associated Press Writer Jeff Amy contributed to this report in Jackson, Mississippi.