Nina Duggan, a senior at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, speaks Wednesday with a staffer from Bureau Ocean Energy Management about her concerns over a proposal from President Trump to allow offshore oil drilling on the East Coast. Duggan said she is worried about the impact oil drilling could have on endangered species in the Gulf of Maine and on climate change in general. Credit: Bill Trotter

AUGUSTA, Maine — Opponents of a proposal by President Donald Trump to allow oil drilling off the East Coast met Wednesday to voice their concerns about the potential impact on Maine, prior to a public meeting on the topic.

Roughly 80 people — representing organizations such as the Natural Resources Council of Maine, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, and Surfrider Foundation, among others — gathered in a room at the Augusta Civic Center to criticize Trump’s plan, saying it could pose a serious threat to Maine’s environment and economy.

An oil spill in the Gulf of Maine could irreparably harm Maine’s $1.5 billion lobster industry, putting both fishermen and lobster dealers out of business, as well as Maine’s multi-billion-dollar tourism industry, which attracts millions of people each year from around the globe, opponents said. Plus, promoting further use of fossil fuels for energy needs will only contribute to global climate change, which is directly impacting Maine’s environment, they said.

“The risk to Maine’s coast economy could be massive,” said Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of NRCM.

Camden resident Sarah Holland attended the meeting dressed as an otter, with a stuffed toy otter with the letter “x” taped over each eye in a carrier on her belly. She said her costume reflected her concerns about how wildlife would be affected if there was an oil spill in the Gulf of Maine.

“There is a lot of sea life in our waters that cannot speak for their own interests,” Holland said. “I am concerned about the impact of an oil spill. It is just a matter of when it will happen [if drilling is allowed].”

Nobody at the civic center Wednesday spoke in favor of oil drilling or otherwise declared any support for allowing it off the East Coast.

Opponents met just prior to a federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management meeting at the civic center. Roughly 20 agency staffers spoke one-on-one with attendees on various aspects of the proposal, such as the role oil plays in the nation’s energy supply and the process the bureau goes through in considering whether to permit offshore drilling proposals.

Critics of the idea have called the BOEM meeting a “sham,” saying it is designed to hide vocal opposition in Maine to offshore drilling by denying Mainers the chance to submit oral public comments at a formal hearing.

“This is why a large group of our collaborating organizations and concerned citizens have risen up today to provide such an opportunity right here for you all to speak and hear one another and to share in your concern for this proposal,” said Melissa Gates of Surfrider Foundation.

Opponents also criticized the fact that BOEM will take public comments only until Friday. The Maine BOEM meeting — one of two dozen held around the country since mid January — had been scheduled for Jan. 22, but was rescheduled due to the short-lived federal government shutdown.

Renee Orr, chief of BOEM’s office of strategic resources, said Wednesday that the meeting format — having information kiosks and talking one-on-one with attendees — has been in use since the Obama administration, when BOEM held a round of meetings in mid- and southern Atlantic states. She said attendees at Wednesday’s meeting also could submit comments on printed forms or the federal comment submission website at computer terminals that had been set up in the meeting space.

There also will be another public comment period after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke releases a draft proposal toward the end of the year showing where offshore drilling would be permitted. A final decision from Zinke on the program is expected by the end of 2019, Orr said.

Orr added that the meeting format encourages the public to submit comments on particular areas of concern, which are factored into the decision on where offshore drilling would be allowed, such as the environmental or economic impacts. Simply saying that one detests drilling is not the kind of comment that carries a lot of weight in the final decision, she said.

“It is not a vote,” Orr said. “Congress did not write the law that way.”

Orr said that if drilling is permitted on the East Coast, oil companies then would conduct exploratory drilling and sonic testing to determine where crude deposits might be located under the sea floor. Opponents say that poses a threat to sea life, including endangered whales, regardless of whether any oil is found.

Some exploratory testing done off New England in the 1980s came up empty, but drilling technology has improved greatly since then, Orr said.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have said they oppose offshore oil drilling in the Northeast. Gov. Paul LePage has said that the possibility of offshore drilling on the East Coast should be carefully considered but that he expects significant regions will be excluded from the final plan due to environmental, fishing, tourism or other areas of specific concern.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....