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Delawareans welcome cancellation of offshore drilling plan


Delaware breathed an audible sigh of relief when the federal government announced this week that it would no longer pursue oil and gas development off the mid-Atlantic coast.

The decision was welcomed by state and federal lawmakers from both parties; environmental groups, coastal residents and the tourism industry, all of whom said the withdrawal of a proposal to drill for oil and gas off the Atlantic coast that would have exposed the shore to the risk of a potentially catastrophic oil spill.

Although the plan from the U.S. Department of the Interior did not involve drilling directly off the coast of Delaware, it envisioned an area starting off the coast of Maryland and stretching to the south, raising fears among some Delawareans that their own coastline could be subjected to future development if the other areas proved productive, or when their output slowed.

“The concern was: what would come next?” said State Sen. Ernie Lopez (R., Lewes). “I thought that was a very reasonable, legitimate concern. If it’s going to be allowed to be done in other places when those resources effectively dry up, why wouldn’t they look to us next?”

Lopez said three of his district’s municipalities – Lewes, Milton and Rehoboth – had passed resolutions opposing the plan, a concern that he said was reflected in the federal government’s decision. Like many other communities, the towns were concerned about the risk of an oil spill on the local coastline, and on wildlife, he said.

“To see the federal government be so responsive to those who would be directly affected I thought was very encouraging,” he said.

And the Republican Senator said there had been no clear evidence that the project would have created local jobs.

“I don’t think there was any substantive data in regards to the total economic benefit that this would have to our economy,” he said. “That made the project even more of a concern to those of us who would have been directly affected.”

Less surprising was the welcome by environmental groups. Stephanie Herron, a spokesman for the Delaware Sierra Club, said the group was “thrilled” by the plan’s cancellation.

She said that Delaware communities like Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island were among more than 100 along the East Coast to have opposed the idea.

“The Obama administration has listened to communities and recognized that the Atlantic Ocean is much too important to our environment, economy and quality of life to allow dangerous offshore drilling for the dirty fuels of the past,” Herron said.

Richie Jones, Delaware State Director for The Nature Conservancy, said the group is “relieved by the decision given our decades-long investment in coastal protection along the Atlantic coast.”

Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, said on Tuesday that there was significant opposition to the DOI’s plan for oil and gas development from 2017 to 2022, and there were competing demands for access to the offshore areas.

“We heard from many corners that now is not the time to offer oil and gas leasing off the Atlantic coast,” Jewell said in a statement. “When you factor in conflicts with national defense, economic activities such as fishing and tourism, and opposition from many local communities, it simply doesn’t make sense to move forward with any lease sales in the coming five years.”

Jewell said the DOI also considered potential conflicts with the Department of Defense, as well as limited infrastructure, and “current market dynamics” amid low global oil prices.

Abundant supplies of oil and gas have driven the prices of both commodities to their lowest point in years, both globally and in the U.S., where hydraulic fracturing technology has opened up major reserves such as crude oil from the Bakken Shale of North Dakota and natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The plentiful energy supplies made it unnecessary to drill off the Atlantic coast, and helped to make a compelling argument against the plan, said Sen. Harris McDowell, (D., Wilmington North).

“We’ve got oil and gas coming out of our ears,” said McDowell, who chairs the state Senate’s Energy and Transit Committee. “I think we have more than enough reserves to keep our economy healthy for a long time to come.”

Some of the greatest concern about the proposal had been expressed by Delaware’s tourism industry, which contributes $3 billion a year to the state’s economy, and depends heavily on the southern beaches that draw thousands of visitors every summer.

Linda Parkowski, the state’s Director of Tourism, welcomed the plan’s withdrawal, which she said removed a major worry for the industry.

“Any environmental impact to the state’s beaches could affect tourism,” Parkowski said. “We’re just really fortunate that this has been circumvented before we actually had to take position on it.”

Even though the tourism industry did not formally object to the plan, there were some fishing and surfing groups that registered their concern about the risk of a spill or a blowout like that which devastated some sections of the Louisiana coast after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“The whole country watched with horror at what happened in the Gulf, and I don’t think anybody wants that repeated anywhere,” Parkowski said.

Coastal residents also welcomed the move. Rich Huffman, a year-round resident of Prime Hook Beach, an isolated community on the bay shore in southern Delaware, said the plan would have risked major damage to Delaware’s vulnerable coastline.

“Regardless of the stated lessons learned from BP and the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, terrible things can happen for a variety of reasons,” Huffman said. “It is refreshing to know that President Obama is sensitive to the natural wonders along our coastline.”

Joining the chorus of acclaim for the DOI decision was U.S. Congressman John Carney who issued a statement on Tuesday saying Delaware would not now be exposed to the risk of another Gulf-like disaster.

“This proposal put our state and our neighbors at risk of suffering the same devastation we’ve seen time and again from oil spills around the world,” Carney said. “It’s just not worth it. I’m glad the Administration heard our concerns, and I applaud them on the reversal of this decision.”

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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