N.J. bans drilling in state waters

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, April 24, 2018

New Jersey’s governor signed a ban on offshore oil and gas exploration in state waters Friday, in a rebuke of the Trump administration’s proposed expansion of drilling leases.

The state is the first to pass a law codifying widespread opposition to the expansion, though legislators are considering similar bills in several other coastal states.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, called potential drilling a “disaster for our environment, our economy, and our coastal communities” in the announcement of the signing, which came on the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

At issue is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s draft five-year plan, which would open up the continental shelf on both coasts. It has prompted a wave of letter-writing, meetings between BOEM and state officials, and legislative movement since it was released in January. Of coastal governors, only Maine’s has endorsed the plan.

“It’s clear that the next iteration [of the five-year plan] is going to have areas that are removed,” said Michael Conathan, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, which worked with Murphy’s office to promote the new law.

Support for the bill was nearly unanimous in the Legislature, while business groups and environmentalists found themselves in the same camp on an issue that industry associations said could hurt tourism and fishing.

“It’s not only an environmental issue here, it’s an economic issue as well,” said state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D), the bill’s primary sponsor, last month.

New Jersey might not have had much reason to fear an imminent deployment; at a hearing last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a representative from the state that there wasn’t much potential for oil and gas development off its coasts (Energywire, April 12).

But the new law could pull environmental regulators into the fray if other Mid-Atlantic states — where gas reserves might exist — were to approve drilling, since it requires New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection to review any new lease plan slated for the country’s Atlantic waters. If the DEP finds that the proposal could “reasonably be expected to affect” New Jersey’s waters, it has to study whether the plan is consistent with its own state management programs and potentially mount an objection.

New Jersey’s law prohibits its regulators from issuing permits for any pipeline or facilities associated with offshore oil and gas development, in addition to barring development itself. Lawmakers in states including Rhode Island and New York are also contemplating prohibitions that encompass infrastructure, while state officials in California have pledged to review activities for consistency with the state’s policies.

Maryland’s General Assembly has approved a bill that calls offshore drilling “an ultrahazardous and abnormally dangerous activity” and makes people who cause oil and gas spills liable for “any injury, death, or loss to person or property.” It also bars the transportation of oil or gas from production sites on the outer continental shelf.

In other states, lawmakers have manifested their displeasure through resolutions that ask the federal government to either exclude them from the lease or extend the current moratorium indefinitely, as the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators noted last month. And in Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s entreaties have already won his state an exemption from Interior’s draft plan, voters may get the chance to weigh in on a ballot measure that would stitch a drilling ban into the state constitution.