ASBURY PARK, N.J. — The Trump administration’s bid to expand offshore drilling sounds like a sweet deal when the oil and gas industry sells it: more jobs, increased local revenue and possibly an energy surplus that could lower home heating costs.
But Mayor John Moor’s opinion of the proposal to drill off the Atlantic Coast for the first time in decades is set: “I don’t think the risk is worth all the money in the world,” he said at City Hall, a few blocks from the popular beach boardwalk that is fueling his city’s economic turnaround.
“You could stack billions atop of billions atop of billions and it’s just not worth the risk.”
Moor’s unwavering view stretches the length of the 142-mile Jersey Shore, from northern municipalities such as Asbury Park to Cape May in the south. As Memorial Day and beach season approached, several mayors whose economies rely heavily on tourism said they are united in opposition to President Trump’s plan.
New Jersey beaches were an embarrassment 30 years ago, but state officials have poured millions of dollars into efforts to recover from a pollution catastrophe. The shore is revitalized, a state treasure that residents, conservationists and politicians fiercely protect.
Across the Atlantic Coast strip, mayors in nearly every city teamed with council members, conservationists, business leaders and residents to craft resolutions that denounced the proposal to widen federal offshore leasing to 90 percent of the outer continental shelf, an effort that began just days after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the plan in January.
They helped put New Jersey at the forefront of resistance to Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, crafting obstacles to the five-year lease proposal that at least one other state copied and another is considering.
Last month, New Jersey became the first Atlantic state to adopt a legal barrier to offshore drilling. Lawmakers passed a bill, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy (D), that prohibits oil exploration in state waters, which extend three miles from shore.
An amendment to the law went further, barring the construction of infrastructure such as a pipeline to deliver oil and natural gas from drilling platforms in federal waters that start where state waters end, a move that would head off the industry’s favored method of bringing energy resources to shore.
New York quickly passed a similar law. And a Republican state senator in Delaware submitted a bill in mid-May that mirrors those of the state’s northern neighbors.
Some chamber of commerce estimates put the economic impact of coastal Atlantic beach tourism at $95 billion a year.
The administration’s proposal has stood on shaky ground from the beginning. Within days of the announcement, Zinke flew to Florida to assure a political ally, Gov. Rick Scott (R), that his state would be exempt.
After a barrage of bipartisan criticism and requests for the same treatment from other coastal states, Zinke has backpedaled.
At congressional hearings in March, Zinke assured Pacific Coast officials that a paucity of easily extractable oil there makes it unlikely that drilling will happen. Later he said something similar about Maine.
A pair of Republican representatives from New Jersey, Leonard Lance and Frank A. LoBiondo, said the secretary indicated to them that the state would also be left off the plan.
Regardless, they pushed for the state ban as “a backdoor way of blocking the offshore drilling,” according to its co-sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D), whose district includes Cape May.
But banning gas pipelines in state waters isn’t “necessarily . . . a showstopper,” said Nicolette Nye, a spokeswoman for the National Ocean Industries Association, which represents oil and gas interests. Pipelines are the cheapest way to transport oil and natural gas to a processing plant, she said, but an expensive plant could be built in federal waters or shipped in an offshore vessel.
“While the stated goal is to reduce dependence on oil, the fact remains that a major shift from oil as a fuel is still many years away,” Nye said. “Thus such a pipeline ban will likely actually increase importation of oil from foreign countries.”
But Jersey Shore drilling opponents are deeply influenced by the shore’s dark history, when federal officials allowed state and local governments to dump millions of tons of sewage into the ocean.
The result was an environmental disaster that led to a tourism exodus from New Jersey beaches, billions of dollars in losses and a generation of conservationists and politicians who said “never again.”
In the late 1980s, the Jersey Shore’s reputation was garbage.
It was a victim of a lawful practice that polluted the coast. Six New Jersey cities and three in New York routinely sent barges piled with 8 million wet tons of sewage to a dumping area 100 miles off Cape May.
Floating trash washed up on beaches from Long Island to Cape May. “Everything from A to Z,” said Moor, the mayor of Asbury Park.
“We used to call it the tampon index because if you had a certain number of tampon applicators you’d know how much raw sewage washed up on the beach and whether you could swim,” said Cindy Zipf, the executive director of Clean Ocean Action, who sat next to Moor at City Hall.
Near Cape May, Martin Pagliughi, mayor of Avalon, remembered. “We spent every morning, 5:30 in the morning, scouring the beaches with shovels and buckets and scoops to kind of get all those,” he said.
Congress passed the federal anti-dumping act of 1988 that ended sewage dumping in 1991 as New York City continued to assert that its ocean garbage runs had nothing to do with the pollution. Meanwhile, syringes and other medical waste continued to wash up on beaches.
By that time, oceanfront rentals and hotels had emptied, few customers were in stores and the shore was the butt of jokes.
New Jersey lost between $900 million and $4 billion, and New York lost between $950 million and $2 billion, according to an estimate by the State University of New York Waste Management Institute.
As the larger dumping debacle played out, Asbury Park was rocked by its own sewage problem starting in 1987. The city botched the maintenance of its sewer lines for two years, then mishandled a cleanup effort by flushing grease into a treatment plant that couldn’t handle it. Blobs of fat mixed with fecal matter drifted into the ocean, broke apart and contaminated the beaches of eight cities at the height of the summer season.
“These beaches were empty,” said John Weber, the Mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, a conservation group. “And I knew because, if you wanted to surf by yourself, if there were good waves, you could come to Asbury Park to not bother with the crowds. That was like their little secret spot, Asbury Park.”
“The beaches were terrible because of the sewage,” Moor said. The tourism loss led to “the economic decline of the city itself and also with the boardwalk, which was in terrible disrepair.”
Asbury Park was fined nearly $1 million, the stiffest fine ever levied by the state’s environmental agency against a city.
“This city was down and out,” Moor said.
Now, after nearly three decades, Asbury Park is resurging. The sewage plant was upgraded and is winning awards. The beach is restored.
Revenue from the tags people must purchase to access the beach is marching upward, from $85,400 in 2003 to nearly $2.2 million last year, money that must be spent to maintain and improve the waterfront.Parking revenue rose to the $1 million mark in 2011, and last year it topped $5 million.
New retail stores and restaurants on a three-block stretch of Cookman Avenue leading to the boardwalk have drawn international praise. New condominiums sprang up years ago, and another gigantic mixed-use development is being built.
“Every weekend there’s something going on” in Asbury Park, Moor said. So when news broke of Trump’s drilling proposal, he felt threatened.
“How do we stop this,” Moor recalled wondering, “because it’s totally insane.”
Like other mayors, Moor turned to activists.
Out of the muck of the late 1980s, determined environmental conservation efforts sprang up. “That was when a lot of us got together and formed the Jersey Shore Partnership and created a beach lobbying type of environment,” said Pagliughi, the mayor of Avalon.
Zipf became their guide.
Working with Vicki Clark of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, she pulled together a network of people who raised public and political awareness.
Zipf also helped craft the amendment that forbids oil pipelines in New Jersey waters, which is modeled on a California law.
David Holt, president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, said outlawing that infrastructure could lead to the type of catastrophe states are trying to avoid.
“They’re basically saying ‘no’ to the most environmentally sensitive way to handle this,” Holt said. “It is a concern for groups like ours.”
For others on the Jersey Shore, resistance means there is a better chance that ocean views and waters will remain pristine, beckoning to tourists and their wallets.
“We’re pretty passionate about protecting our tourism economy,” Clark said. She recalled lobbying mayors and council members to pass resolutions when she bumped into them on the streets.
Pagliughi, who called the opposition a no-brainer, was a quick sell. Cape May Mayor Clarence F. Lear III, who doesn’t want to see a single oil platform on his horizon, asked what he could do.
Clark summed up her lobbying to fight Trump’s proposal: “It was easy,” she said.