Suffolk Closeup: Drilling deja vu

KARL GROSSMAN PHOTO Environmentalists and public officials in Suffolk County would rather see wind farm development, above, rather than oil drilling off the Atlantic shores.
KARL GROSSMAN PHOTO Environmentalists and public officials in Suffolk County would rather see wind farm development, above, rather than oil drilling off the Atlantic shores.

It was a case of offshore oil drilling deja vu for me, having broken the story about the oil industry seeking to drill in the offshore Atlantic, including off Long Island, nearly 50 years ago.

But this time around, offshore drilling would be completely unnecessary with the U.S. awash in petroleum — $2.50-a-gallon gas — and oil drilling in the sea 10 times more costly than drilling on land. Plus, renewable energy, led by solar and wind, is now well-developed and cheaper than fossil fuels.

And although a spill from an oil-drilling platform off Santa Barbara, California in 1969 had demonstrated the environmental dangers of offshore oil drilling, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and oil spill disaster dwarfed that, killing 11 workers and devastating marine life and the coast along the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, global warming — mainly caused by burning of fossil fuels, notably oil — has shown in recent years the danger of continuing to use oil. Another difference: This time partisan politics has become part of the process.

But there I was as the new year began at an inn in Key West, Florida. This was among the areas I traveled to in 1970 after exposing the oil industry’s offshore drilling plans in the Long Island Press. Picking up The Key West Citizen, I read about the Trump administration giving a blanket go-ahead to offshore oil drilling.

The arguments against it in The Citizen were similar to those made in Florida, on Long Island, and up and down the Atlantic Coast nearly 50 years ago, that drilling would threaten marine life and a “robust tourist-based economy that generates $2 billion alone in water-based activities,” as the newspaper noted.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson was quoted as calling the Trump administration plan “an assault on Florida’s economy, our national security, the will of the public and the environment. This proposal defies all common sense.”

Decades ago I visited the first offshore drill rig set up in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia, and the dangers of drilling were obvious. On the rig it was admitted that the booms, promoted in oil industry ads as containing spills, wouldn’t work in even moderate seas. Peat moss was being stockpiled along the Nova Scotia coast to try to sop up spilled oil.

On Long Island, “you’d use straw,” the Shell Canada official said. A rescue boat circled the rig 24 hours a day. I covered days of government hearings in Boston, Trenton, New Jersey and here in Suffolk.

But then a succession of moratoria on Atlantic offshore drilling voted in overwhelmingly by Congress caused the issue to largely fade away. In recent years, however, the Obama administration moved to somewhat reopen the offshore drilling possibility. Now the Trump administration has thrown the door completely open.

Back on Long Island, I read the strong protests here to the move. DuWayne Gregory, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature, said the Trump offshore oil-drilling plan “would be devastating to our coastal communities on Long Island by damaging marine life and precious natural resources, increasing the chances for a catastrophic spill.”

Members of the Suffolk Legislature, in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke drafted by Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), who represents Shelter Island, noted that “the proposed program would promote oil and gas drilling on more than 98 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf, including a region that encompasses the entirety of Suffolk County … This program will cause substantial harm to our county’s tourism revenue … as well as our precious marine resources.”

“Our beautiful coastline is crucial to this state’s economy,” declared Governor Andrew Cuomo. It “generates billions of dollars through tourism, fishing and other industries.”

Mr. Cuomo and the Suffolk legislators cited a sudden deal between Mr. Zinke and Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott exempting Florida from the drilling scheme, and asked for an exemption for here, too.

It’s been widely reported in Florida and nationally that the deal with Mr. Zinke has to do with the Trump administration wanting to help Mr. Scott in a run for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket, challenging Nelson, a Democrat.

At least when I got into the issue in 1970, with Richard Nixon as president, politics had nothing to do with his administration’s decisions about where drilling should take place.

I originally got into the offshore oil drilling story with a tip from a fisherman out of Montauk who said he had seen in the ocean east of Montauk the same sort of vessel as the boats he observed searching for petroleum when he was a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico.

I called oil company after oil company with each saying they were not involved in searching for oil in the Atlantic. Then there was a call from a PR guy at Gulf saying, yes, Gulf was involved in exploring for oil in the Atlantic, in a “consortium” of 32 oil companies doing the searching.

These included the companies that all had issued denials.

This was a first lesson in oil industry honesty, which is an oxymoron.