HAMILTON, N.J. (AP) — With giant inflatable whales, signs that read "Drilling Is Killing" and chants of "Where's our meeting?" opponents of President Donald Trump's plan to open most of the nation's coastline to oil and natural gas drilling have staged boisterous rallies before public meetings held by the federal government on the topic.
That's because the public cannot speak to the assembled attendees at the meetings. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is meeting one on one with interested parties and allows people to comment online, including typing comments on laptops it provides. People also can hand bureau officials written comments to be included in the record.
What they can't do is get up at a microphone and address the room.
That has led drilling opponents on both coasts to hold their own meetings before the official ones begin. The latest took place Wednesday in Hamilton, where one attendee wore a furry red lobster hat with claws protruding from both sides.
"They're dodging democracy," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of New Jersey's Clean Ocean Action environmental group, which held a citizens' hearing before the bureau meeting. "The government works for the people. I understand it's uncomfortable to have a bad idea and be held accountable for it, but that's what they're proposing."
The Republican president's decision last month to open most of the nation's coast to oil and gas drilling horrified environmentalists, and many elected officials from both major political parties oppose it. But energy groups and some business organizations support it as a way to become less dependent on foreign energy.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's chief environmental officer, William Brown, said Congress has mandated five-year energy plans since the Arab oil crisis of the 1970s sent prices rising.
"The charge is to develop a program that provides for the energy needs of the United States, balancing environmental risk with energy need," Brown told The Associated Press. "We all know renewable energy is something we should develop more of, but renewables are not going to take the place of fossil fuels immediately. The people who are going to read your story are mostly using cars."
Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy addressed the environmental rally by video link before the bureau meeting Wednesday, sending a message to Trump: "You will not drill off our precious shores! No way!"
Bureau spokeswoman Tracey Blythe Moriarty said the open house format lets people speak directly with agency staff to learn about the drilling proposal.
"We find this approach to be more effective than formal oral testimony," she said.
But many attendees at past meetings disagree.
Environmentalists rallied on the steps of the California state capitol in Sacramento before a bureau hearing there, citing damage from a 1969 oil rig spill in Santa Barbara and a broken oil pipe in Refugio Beach three years ago. People upset at not being able to speak publicly chanted "Where's our hearing?"
The bureau set up informational displays at its Feb. 8 meeting, including one titled "Why Oil Is Important."
Before a Feb. 8 meeting in Tallahassee, Florida, drilling foes invoked the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which fouled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and said they want to ensure that Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's promise to exempt Florida from the drilling plan — the only exception publicly announced — remains in place.
In Oregon, some meeting attendees said bureau staff were unable to answer their questions about the drilling plan and were frustrated at being directed to a row of laptops to type out comments.
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