Environmental activists, business groups and a retired U.S. Navy admiral in Virginia blasted the Trump Administration's offshore drilling plan Wednesday, claiming that it would interfere with military training near the world's largest Navy base and imperil the coast's tourism and fishing industries.
The group converged near a hotel conference room in Richmond, the Virginia capital, where the administration sought public comment on its plan to expand oil and gas drilling on both of the nation's coasts.
Groups supporting the energy industry and consumers also showed up and pushed back. They said drillers and the U.S. military have shared space in the Gulf of Mexico and that technology has improved since the Gulf's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, making such disasters less likely and cleanup easier.
The Trump Administration has been holding such open houses in or near the capitals of coastal states, asking members of the public to submit written comments. People with questions are directed to speak with officials from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — but commenters are unable to speak into a microphone before a crowd.
The format, which federal officials said began under the Obama Administration, has led to protests and news conferences nearby by opponents.
In Virginia, the possibility of drilling off the Atlantic seaboard has brought together a diverse group of opponents who claimed offshore energy production would be especially problematic.
Speaking in an adjacent hotel room, drilling opponents listed reasons that included possible threats to the state's revived oyster industry and the Chesapeake Bay's health. They also pointed to NASA's Wallops Flight facility on the Eastern Shore, which sometimes launches unmanned rockets to the International Space Station, and various training areas for Navy SEALs, submarines and aircraft carriers based in the Hampton Roads region.
The military is a major economic engine in the region.
"If they can't do that training off the coast of Virginia, they will go where they can do so," said Craig Quigley, a retired rear admiral and executive director of the Hampton Roads Military and Federal Facilities Alliance. That group aims to keep military installations in the region.
John Uhrin, a Virginia Beach city councilman, said he's not convinced offshore energy firms would bring lasting economic benefits. Virginia Beach had supported offshore drilling several years ago but recently passed a resolution opposing it.
He said it's easy to imagine the economic damage of an oil spill, but not a major economic boon from oil rigs. He said the rigs would likely be built elsewhere and many of the workers would likely come from places like Louisiana.
But Miles Morin, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council, said that would be only the case in the short run. He said those jobs would eventually be homegrown. He added that offshore energy companies would bring more tax revenue and bolster the region's shipyards and the Port of Virginia, among other businesses.
Brent Greenfield, vice president of policy for the Consumer Energy Alliance, added that offshore drilling would lead to cheaper gas and therefore more tourism in Virginia. Local businesses, like trucking companies, would also benefit, he said.
Renee Orr, chief of BOEM's Office of Strategic Resources, said there are areas in the Gulf of Mexico that are used by both the military and drillers. She said the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense also have formed a new working group on the issue.
Orr said another series of public meetings will be held in the future as the plan makes its way through the approval process. It's possible Virginia and other states could be removed as they have been under previous proposals.
Among those submitting comments Wednesday was Ellis W. James, 80, of Norfolk, a retired door-to-door insurance salesman and Sierra Club member. He dictated his comments to a woman typing up public responses on a laptop for the federal government.
James said domestic energy production has been increasing since the Obama Administration and that offshore drilling isn't necessary. He said he's also worried about the impact of seismic testing on dolphins and whales.
But Carl R. Smith, a retired oil rig captain who lives in Chesapeake, said offshore drilling is a "clean and mature industry" that will bring "huge revenues" to Virginia.
"You got a lot of people looking over your shoulder," he said of regulations. "It's a safe business. We should do it."