Deal, coastal Georgia officials raise concerns about offshore drilling


Gov. Nathan Deal raised concerns about the Trump administration’s decision to allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in coastal Georgia and much of the rest of the nation’s coastal waters, but it’s unclear whether the state will seek an exemption from the expanded federal program.

The governor’s office said in a statement Wednesday that Deal has “some concerns with opening up Georgia’s pristine coastlines which he will convey to the congressional delegation.”

The reaction from the state’s Republicans on Capitol Hill was a bit more mutedwhile environmentalists and some coastal officials urged the governor to push for an exemption similar to the one the Trump administration recently granted Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The U.S. Interior Department announced the changes last week, opening up more than 90 percent of the country’s outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration and development beginning in 2019. That includes Georgia’s roughly 100 miles of coastline.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the plan would bolster the country’s economy and energy security while funding conservation efforts. He announced plans to collect public comments on the proposal, including at a Feb. 28 meeting in Atlanta.

“Just like with mining, not all areas are appropriate for offshore drilling, and we will take that into consideration in the coming weeks,” Zinke said in a Jan. 4 statement. “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance”

The announcement prompted stiff opposition from governors from both parties on the coasts. The critics include the governors of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

One of the most outspoken opponents, Florida’s Scott — a vocal Trump backer who is seen as a possible top recruit for the state’s U.S. Senate race later this year — won a reprieve from the order this week. The Trump administration announced it had ruled out drilling for oil and gas offshore Florida because, Zinke said, “its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”

Deal’s office declined to comment further on the possibility of seeking a reprieve.

A Zinke spokeswoman said he’s willing to meet with any governor who wants to discuss the policy, and that Scott was the first to ask.

“If other governors would like to request meetings with the secretary,” she said, “they are absolutely invited to do so.”

Local opposition

Dozens of Atlantic coastal communities, including Brunswick, Savannah and St. Marys, have signed resolutions in past years opposing exploration due to environmental, tourism and fishing concerns.

Tybee Island Mayor Jason Buelterman, whose beachside town was ravaged by storms last year, joined the chorus of local officials who urged Deal to appeal to Trump’s White House for an exemption.

He said Georgia would have ample ammunition to make the case because of the “fragile nature of the Georgia coast and marshlands and possible negative impacts on jobs associated with tourism should there ever be an accident.”

State Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from the hamlet of Midway on Georgia’s seashore, called the White House plan “a terrible idea that could have profound negative effects on Georgia’s coast.”

“It’s another idea with big business in mind,” he said.

Georgia conservationists also firmly oppose the Trump administration’s changes.

Jennette Gayer of Environment Georgia called Deal’s concern “great news” and invoked the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill that leached millions of barrels of oil into the ocean and rocked the region’s fishing and tourism industries.

“In this case Governor Deal can learn from our neighbors and send a clear message against drilling off Georgia coasts,” she said. “Oil spills and drilling infrastructure would be a terrible legacy to leave our beautiful coast and the communities and businesses that rely on oil-free beaches, marshes and ocean.”

Some supporters say the potential economic development benefits outweigh the costs. Timothy Considine, an energy economist, reported in 2015 that oil and gas drilling off Georgia’s coast could create as many as 6,500 jobs and add $250 million annually to state coffers by 2035.

The state’s top GOP officials in Washington indicated they were broadly supportive of moves to make the U.S. more independent from foreign oil producers, but some cautioned that outside factors such as local opinions, environmental impact and economic potential should be taken into consideration.

“There’s a lot of due diligence to do,” Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said in an interview Wednesday.

“I think it’s a possibility that there’s a way that it could be done that was judicious and made sense, but you’ve got to make sure the environment, the investment that Georgia has already made … are protected.”

Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who lives on Sea Island, said energy independence is of prime concern to him but that officials need to make sure the returns for drilling in the Atlantic are worth the expense.

“The question is, is there anything out there? We don’t really know that yet,” he said Thursday, “and eventually we’re going to have to know that, in my opinion.”

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, said he supports an “expansive energy independence policy” but that Trump’s proposed policy change has “left me with some questions.” He called on the Interior Department to hold a public hearing in his coastal 1st Congressional District.

Carter, Isakson and several other Georgia Republicans signed onto House and Senate letters to Zinke last summer — when the administration’s previous offshore leasing program was limited to the Gulf of Mexico and a small area off the coast of Alaska — encouraging him to “carefully review” other areas of the country “to ensure that opportunities are not missed.”

“Offshore development has undergone rapid technological innovation ensuring it is cheaper, safer, and provides access to previously out-of-reach areas,” the Senate letter stated.

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