Jan. 29–The methods vary, but the message should be clear: Keep oil rigs off of Georges Bank.
For decades, the fossil fuel industry has been looking to set up drilling operations in the waters off the Massachusetts coast. And for years, a coalition of local interests — primarily fishermen, lawmakers and the environmental lobby –have worked long and hard to keep them out.
If fishermen and environmentalists are standing side-by-side on the issue, you know it’s important. While the latest effort to stave off exploration — in the form of proposed legislation filed on Beacon Hill last week — may not pan out officially, it sends a strong signal that the state is united in opposition to the expansion of drilling into its historic local waters.
Georges Bank, located about 100 miles off Gloucester, is home to species such as cod, haddock and lobster. Long one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, it was the economic engine that helped launch the Bay State — it is for good reason a five-foot carved wooden effigy of the Atlantic cod hangs in the chambers of the Massachusetts House. And it is for good reason it is called “the sacred cod.”
Unfortunately, the fishing grounds — and the rest of the New England coast — have long been a target of an energy industry hoping to expand northward. They have an ally in the Trump administration, which wants to open the Atlantic coast to exploratory drilling as part of an effort to dominate the global energy market. The administration recently gave fossil fuel exploration companies permission to conduct seismic surveys in a section of the ocean between Florida and Delaware. The waters off New England are also high on the list.
While fossil fuel executives say there are “no immediate plans” to start drilling off Massachusetts, that doesn’t mean New England isn’t a target. Oil companies have long lusted after New England waters, only to be rebuffed thanks to the efforts of local lawmakers and fishing industry advocates like Angela Sanfilippo, longtime president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association.
While opening the grounds to drilling would have a disastrous effect for the centuries-old fishing industry, there is more at stake. Environmentalists say all manner of marine life will be put at risk, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which feeds in the waters off Cape Cod. The tourism and fishing economies on the Gulf Coast have yet to recover from the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, the largest in American history.
“We need to do everything we can legislatively to block support for oil and gas exploration,” Jack Clarke, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a Gloucester resident, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade.
Clarke was speaking to efforts by two Democratic Cape Cod legislators to make such exploration illegal.
A proposal by state Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth and state Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro would ban drilling for oil or gas in state waters, while prohibiting the lease of state land for oil or gas exploration, development or production. It mirrors other efforts by lawmakers in states on both coasts.
“The Trump administration is clearly eager to promote fossil fuels for energy and is hostile to any sort of environmental concerns,” Cyr said. “Here in Massachusetts, and many other East Coast states, we’re headed in the opposite direction with offshore wind, solar and other renewable energies.”
While he has yet to weigh in on the new bill, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has long opposed oil exploration in state waters.
“I think offshore drilling is a bad idea,” Baker said when asked about the proposed ban last week. “We have very important fishing industries up and down the coast that really matter to us and the people that work in that industry.”
The latest effort comes as Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey signed on to a multi-state lawsuit opposing the expansion of drilling.
Fishermen and environmentalists are united. New England states are united. So are Democrats and Republicans. It should send a clear signal to Washington to abandon its efforts to push the fossil fuel industry into places it is not welcome.
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