Op-Ed

At a ‘public meeting’ on offshore drilling, the public goes unheard

In this 2015 file photo, opponents of opening waters off the Carolinas coast to oil and natural gas exploration hold signs in Mount Pleasant, S.C. They were standing outside a motel where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held a meeting to take public comment.
In this 2015 file photo, opponents of opening waters off the Carolinas coast to oil and natural gas exploration hold signs in Mount Pleasant, S.C. They were standing outside a motel where the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management held a meeting to take public comment. AP

Last Tuesday, the steps of the Columbia, S.C. State House were festooned with banners, ocean enthusiasts, and a bipartisan coalition determined to stop offshore drilling. Seven miles away, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) prepared a “public meeting” on the topic. In seven short miles, I never expected to descend from elation to devastation so precipitously. I was stunned. If we are counting on the BOEM process to enact stewardship toward our seas, we are in deep trouble.

I didn’t arrive at that conclusion preordained. My first shock came after I mistakenly entered BOEM via the wrong door, landing at the end of the presentation queue: the commenting area. Here, at a row laptops, attendees were busily enterring their typewritten comments. Baffled that a “public meeting” included no spoken public commentary from attendees, I asked the BOEM representative nearby, What’s the point? I could enter a computer comment on my laptop at home. He told me, BOEM designed the forum as an exchange of information, if I would go to the presentation tables at the other side of the room. So I did. That’s where it really got interesting.

As an engaged citizen in local government, I am used to the “public meeting” format. In Wilmington, our city council frequently addresses matters of public dispute via this forum. Commonly both sides are presented, with the pros, cons, and risks of each weighed, with speakers addressing both the decision-makers and their fellow attendees by microphone. Commentary is participatory, at times colorful: but all sides are heard.

That’s not the BOEM mold. Like cattle, or in this case, sea cows being led down the chute to slaughter, attendees at a BOEM “public meeting” are herded along what amounts to an indoctrination line. Only one side of the issue is on display – pro-oil.

“Display” is an equally appropriate word. In front of tables spanning three sides of the room, presentation boards are mounted at eye level, literally “in your face.” One of the first greets attendees with, “Why Oil is Important”, showcasing “Petroleum Products from a Barrel of Crude Oil”. The adjacent poster, “Oil – Formation to Production”, is followed by a colorful map: it shows the entire United States coastline (in blue) chopped into bright yellow bricks of proposed leases. Note, this is not the Yellow Brick Road; “There’s no place like home” does not meet BOEM’s criteria for “helpful” comments, no matter how plaintively coastal residents try to say it.

One eye-catching placard reads, “Geologic Plays on the Atlantic OCS”. “The objective ... is to identify geologic plays on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) that offer the highest potential for the occurrence of oil and natural gas development.”

Another presentation board is headlined, “National OSC Oil and Gas Leasing Program”, delineating “BOEM Responsibility” – via a pink and green flow chart leading to the (apparently inevitable) endpoint: “Sale held > Leases Issued”, and beneath that, “Well Drilling, First Oil/Gas Production”.

Is the picture becoming clear? I was stunned. Nowhere are “Leases denied”. There is no “Why Oceans and Beach Communities are Important”. No. This indoctrination – because that’s what it is – continues around three long sides of the room until the final turn, heading into the home stretch, where a single placard, “Outer Continental Shelf Renewable Energy”, offers a sad and lonely alternative off by its lonesome self, an afterthought.

The final placard, “Tips to Provide Helpful Comments”, makes it a wrap. “Helpful comments” are (quote) “fact based, include links to data or research, provide specifics.” A “Non specific” comment (by inference, not helpful) is given by this example: “Oil and gas development hurts the environment and will cause me to lose business.” Yet this is precisely the type of (true) fact-based comment a working class coastal resident might make. Not all stakeholders are college graduates. I’m a retired firefighter with 30 years of service to my community. I don’t have the skills to string “factoids” and “data links” into the BOEM format. And even if I did, BOEM specifies: “Less Helpful Comments ... provide the same or similar information as other comments (these comments are grouped together),” apparently, as one.

This “environmental gerrymandering” willfully dilutes the impact of coastal voices who simply love our seas and know the greed play of offshore drilling is both dangerous and wrong.

Mitzi Simmons is a retired firefighter-paramedic and ocean enthusiast living in Wilmington.

BOEM meeting in Raleigh

BOEM will hold a public meeting at Hilton North Raleigh/Midtown from 3-7 p.m. For more information, go to www.boem.gov.

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