Ocean City may bill itself as a year-round resort, but it’s no secret that the Fourth of July marks the start of the real season — the eight or nine weeks of booked summer rentals, hotels at capacity, overflowing restaurants and shoulder-to-shoulder sunbathers on the beach that define the local economy. It is somewhat ironic that this past Monday also marked the beginning of Ocean City’s last chance to plead with the Trump administration to spare its tourism industry from the grave threat posed by off-shore drilling.
In late April, President Donald Trump signed an “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” executive order directing the U.S. Department of the Interior to reverse policies developed during the waning months of the Obama administration protecting the Atlantic Ocean’s outer continental shelf from oil and gas exploration. Last week, the administration officially released the result of that executive order, a new five-year plan to open up those federally-controlled waters to the petroleum industry, a frightening prospect to the millions of Americans who vacation on, own property along or whose livelihoods depend on Atlantic beaches. The notion that the tourism economy and the billions of dollars invested in it might be compromised by non-sustainable oil and gas exploration is absurd. But with Monday’s publication of the regulations in the Federal Register, the 45-day clock has started: Americans have until August 17 to express their opinion to Interior officials.
Opening up coastal drilling is deeply and universally unpopular in beach towns far beyond Ocean City. Memories of the Deepwater Horizon, the 2010 BP oil spill that involved nearly 5 million barrels of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico that devastated fisheries and tourism and ultimately cost that company more than $42 billion in payouts, are still fresh. So is the Exxon Valdez, the 1989 oil tanker that hit a reef in Prince William Sound and left 1,300 miles of coastline drenched in crude oil. With coastal communities already dealing with pollution and compromised water quality and fisheries, why worsen the problem when it will neither produce the jobs nor the “energy independence” that the Trump administration claims?
Indeed, trouble is already brewing with the Trump administration’s earlier approval of seismic testing for underground oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic (the comment period for which ends July 6). Soon, boats towing enormous air guns pointed at the ocean are expected to be dispatched across thousands of square miles of potential drilling sites from New Jersey to Florida. Experts fear the impact these sonic blasts will have on marine life including dolphins, sea turtles, whales and migrating schools of fish. Why? As a 2016 study by the National Ocean Economics Program at Middlebury College pointed out, jobs in the U.S. coastal economy depend more on living resources than oil and gas exploration. Fracking and horizontal drilling technology have already given the U.S. a record boost in oil and gas production from inland sources, including the nearby Marcellus Shale basin.
And it’s not just losing tourists that has waterfront communities worried. If President Trump continues to lead the U.S. away from global norms on climate change and allows non-sustainable exploitation of fossil fuels that contribute heavily to the problem, the threat of rising sea levels alone could doom towns like Ocean City — or at least force them to erect major sea walls or relocate to higher ground. How quaint that Ocean City officials were just weeks ago debating the merits of off-shore wind turbines and whether tourists might be annoyed by their miniature appearance on the horizon. Globs of crude oil stuck to beaches and marine life and coastal flooding are considerably worse hardships.
The Trump administration might ignore public opinion, but Marylanders ought to make their voices heard anyway. They will certainly find a great deal of company — including in states like South Carolina where Republicans hold political sway. Gov. Larry Hogan has been strangely silent on a matter that ought to be a no-brainer for him. An estimated 90,000 jobs and $5.4 billion in gross domestic product can be traced to Maryland’s coastal economy. Being pro-business requires standing up for those jobs — as publicly and firmly as possible — so that nobody in the White House or Congress gets the idea that Maryland is the least bit undecided about the wisdom of offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling.
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