OCEAN CITY — The Obama administration this month announced it was moving to permanently protect a vast area off the Atlantic coast from offshore drilling for oil and natural gas reserves.
Utilizing his authority under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, President Barack Obama last Tuesday announced he was withdrawing roughly 3.8 million acres in the north and mid-Atlantic from future offshore drilling for oil and natural gas reserves. The measure formally protects the 31 offshore canyons from New England to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay including the Baltimore, Poor Man’s, Washington and Norfolk Canyons accessible from Ocean City and the mid-Atlantic coast.
In January 2015, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) announced a proposal to lease a vast area off the mid-Atlantic coast for oil and natural gas exploration and eventually excavation as part of the Obama administration’s larger strategy to expand safe and responsible domestic energy production. The proposal was immediately hit with a groundswell of resistance from environmental groups and coastal communities, many of which wrote strong letters of opposition to the proposal, including Ocean City, Worcester County and Berlin locally.
While the proposed lease area included the vast nearly three million acre swath off the Virginia coast, detractors warn future oil rigs could loom just 50 miles off the coast of Ocean City, Assateague and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Many raised concerns about erecting massive offshore oil rigs in ecologically sensitive areas off the mid-Atlantic coast, while others were concerned the plan signaled an expansion of non-renewable, fossil-based energy sources while there is growing momentum to move forward with renewable, sustainable energy, including the proposed offshore wind energy farm off the coast of Ocean City.
Locally, there was reason for concern on many levels. The area targeted off the coast of Virginia was just 50 miles from Assateague Island and, by extension, the Maryland coast including Ocean City. There are considerable 25- and 50-mile buffers in place between the easternmost edge of the target area and the Maryland and Virginia coasts, and the plan also included a no obstruction zone at the mouth of the Chesapeake, but the proposed offshore drilling area was still a little too close for comfort for many in the area.
The Obama administration announced last spring it was reconsidering the proposal to lease areas off the mid-Atlantic coast for offshore exploration and drilling. On Tuesday, the president made it a formality when he announced he was permanently protecting the Atlantic coast from New England to Virginia. The announcement was met with joy from the many organizations and jurisdictions that opposed the plan including the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT), which released a statement on Tuesday.
“This move came about because of coastal communities and champions of our Atlantic Ocean coming together to resoundingly say no to offshore drilling off our coast,” the ACT statement reads. “Everyone who signed a petition, wrote a letter, attended a rally, spoke at a town council meeting, drafted a resolution and lent their voice to this important cause can revel in the knowledge that they helped bring about this permanent protection.”
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was one of many federal officials who strongly opposed opening the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. On Tuesday, Cardin released a statement of his own.
“For years, I have strongly opposed plans to expand drilling operations off the Atlantic coast,” he said. “This final act should permanently end any and all misguided attempts to endanger the economic viability and environmental health of the region. Oil spills and the damage associated with seismic exploration do not respect state boundaries, making drilling anywhere on the Atlantic coast a threat everywhere on the Atlantic coast.”
From the beginning, the environmental advocacy group Oceana has been at the forefront of the opposition to opening the Atlantic coast to offshore drilling. Oceana Senior Vice President Jacqueline Savitz also issued a statement on Tuesday.
“President Obama has taken a key step in protecting important areas of the Atlantic Ocean from offshore drilling,” she said. “In doing so, he is making a good decision, and a smart business decision, based on science and facts.”
Savitz said the landmark decision will help ensure coastal communities will remain protected from offshore drilling in the Atlantic.
“This decision will help protect existing lucrative coastal tourism and fishing businesses from offshore drilling, which promises smaller, short-lived returns and threatens coastal livelihoods,” she said. “The people of the Atlantic coast refused to allow their way of life to be compromised and we commend their hard work in making their voices heard in Washington.”