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Saturday, April 7, 2018

Offshore drilling draws another RI opponent

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
The backlash against President Trump and his environmental policies was evident in several bills heard by the General Assembly last week.

The biggest pushback came against the president’s order to open up the Eastern Seaboard to offshore oil and gas drilling. The Senate Committee on the Environment and Agriculture unanimously approved a resolution (S2360) opposing the federal plan. But a bill (S2116) that bans offshore drilling and restricts oil and natural-gas infrastructure on the mainland met resistance.

Both the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Coastal Resources Management Council (CMRC) argued that the bill has the unintended consequence of preempting oversight by the two state agencies and thus increasing federal jurisdiction.

CRMC executive director Grover Fugate said his agency already has jurisdiction beyond the 3 miles of state waters to 30 miles within federal waters. That authority was granted with federal approval of CRMC’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) in 2011. 

Rhode Island is the first state with such a plan. It enlarges state oversight a full 200 miles offshore, as long as CRMC can show that local fishermen use those areas. Fugate is scheduled to meet with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in late April to apply for extending the rustication zone to 200 miles offshore.

“We do have mapping that shows our fisheries go out that far to the (continental) shelf area,” Fugate said during a March 28 Senate hearing.

If the additional offshore jurisdiction is granted, CRMC has the authority to review the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) proposal for leasing the outer continual shelf for oil and gas exploration and extraction. Drilling companies that receive a lease must also have their plans reviewed by CRMC. The reviews include public hearings.

According to Fugate, CRMC is required to reject those proposals if the board can prove that the exploration and drilling disrupt fisheries for at least two years.

“Obviously, offshore oil production has that potential,” he said.

BOEM, Fugate said, is aware that CRMC has such regulatory oversight and has reached out to the agency for information.

“The real issue is not in state waters, it’s in federal waters,” Fugate said. “If the state objects, the federal agency cannot approve that project.”

Several business groups also opposed the bill, called the Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling and Exploration Act. The Rhode Island Business Coalition (RIBC) said the group doesn't take a position on offshore drilling activities in Rhode Island. Specifically, it wants language removed from the bill that prevents construction of onshore and offshore equipment that relates to refined fossil fuels.

“We believe this language would even prevent building or improving existing facilities that accept oil extracted from the Gulf of Mexico, despite the fact that product from the gulf already comes to Rhode Island every day and it has done for decades,” according written testimony from RIBC.

The RIBC letter was signed by the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the New England Business Association, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and the Rhode Island Society of Certified Public Accountants.

The bill was held for further study so that changes can be made collectively by CRMC, Senate legal counsel and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport.