Eye on FI: Battle Brewing Over Offshore Drilling

By Timothy Bolger

Not since Fire Island’s sandbars shredded schooners a century ago has this coast seen as much drama now that New York State declared war on President Donald Trump’s proposed opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling.

Trump’s order for the U.S. Department of Interior to study leasing federally managed sea beds to energy companies for fossil fuel exploration and extraction set in motion the possibility of oil rigs off the coast in as soon as five years. But the president’s home state is planning a preemptive strike with critics invoking World War II in the process.

“If they go to put a platform up or an exploration task force up, I am going to commission a citizen fleet … from throughout the state to go out and interfere with their federal effort,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said, likening the idea to Winston Churchill’s recruitment of the boating public to rescue stranded British soldiers in Dunkirk. “If you think I’m kidding, I’m not. And I’m going to lead that citizen fleet.”

New York and other states have formally requested that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempt them from the proposed offshore drilling. So far, only the politically pivotal state of Florida – home of Trump’s so-called “southern White House” at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach — has been granted a reprieve after the Sunshine State’s governor argued it would negatively impact tourism.

It’s not unheard of. Gulf Coast communities where oil rigs and related infrastructure dot the landscape get half the amount of tourism dollars as those that lack such eyesores, according to a 2016 analysis by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Although that may not be such bad news to Fire Islanders eager to rid the beach of daytrippers.

And it remains to be seen how industrial equipment’s intrusion in the seascape would impact property values for FI’s seven-figure oceanfront homeowners, where much of the price tags hinge on the unvarnished views. Would buyers be as eager to shell out millions for a front-row FI beach house that features a prominent view of an oil platform? We’ll see, should the plan move forward.

But before Cuomo, environmentalists and others opposed to the idea board their boats to form a blockade to stop potential oil wells off FI and Long Island, Cuomo proposed the Save Our Waters Act, which would bar oil and gas drilling in New York waters. It would force the industry to run oil pipes to another state besides New York. The state also plans to challenge the federal plan in court.

The clash is playing out just as New York plans to expand the nation’s first offshore wind farm off the Long Island coast. That makes the battle for the water not just one for the state and federal governments. It’s also a fight between backers of green energy and the fossil fuel industry.

Trump and Zinke both touted the offshore drilling plan as an effort to assert America’s “energy dominance,” create jobs and boost revenue for taxpayers. Besides tourism, critics of the plan warned that the increased shipping traffic and potential spills would also negatively impact the region’s fishing industries, hundreds of thousands of jobs and the $11 billion ocean economy.

“Over the century, the oil and gas industry has amassed an injurious track record of oil spills and other environmental disasters, which have had significant, lasting impacts on our environment and public health,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Farmingdale-based nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

But the issue hasn’t only riled up the usual cast of environmentalist critics. Members of the president’s own party are also urging he drop the plan.

“Even just the exploratory phase of offshore drilling would be detrimental,” U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), whose district includes the eastern half of FI, told the Interior. “The seismic testing would affect fish and marine life populations and is a major concern for our environmentalists, fishermen, oyster growers, and other businesses that are part of our historic and growing seafood economy.”

U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), whose district covers the western half of FI, has gone on record as being in favor of offshore drilling in New York. “I’m all for it,” King told WJLA-TV. “We need more energy resources. It’s a great weapon in the war against terrorism and as far as countering Russia and Iran.”

Aside from New York’s challenges, the five-year timeline means that offshore drilling within sight of FI could also be stopped if Trump reverses course or isn’t re-elected in 2020, assuming the next administration opposes the idea. But if it advances, locals looking to take the governor up on his citizen fleet idea might want to consider sailing out to hold their line in the sea instead of fueling up motorboats that may undercut the statement they’re trying to make.

And beware the sandbars.

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