In one room, members of the public calmly questioned federal scientists about the ins and outs of offshore drilling before submitting written comments.
In another room, environmental groups loudly rallied their followers against the possibility of oil drilling off the Jersey Shore as prominent Garden State politicians called in to support.
This was the scene at the Hamilton Garden Inn on Wednesday afternoon for the only public hearing in N.J. on the Trump administration’s proposal to open federal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling.
While the atmosphere in the two rooms differed, the message from the public was loud and clear: New Jersey residents do not want drilling off the Jersey Shore.
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For four hours at the hearing, scientists from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management stood with posters explaining the various aspects of offshore drilling, from estimates on how much oil and gas are in federal waters to the potential effects of drilling on marine life.
Members of the public were invited to ask questions of scientists and policymakers while expressing their concerns about offshore drilling. Tables with laptops were setup for members of the public to submit written comments electronically after speaking with the BOEM staffers.
“The staffers here are all career [staffers],” said William Brown, BOEM’s chief environmental officer. “I’m a career executive. We’re not here to push a political agenda, we’re not here to campaign for offshore drilling. We’re here to get information about the environment. And I think people see that.”
For the BOEM staffers, the face-to-face conversations are a chance to learn things about local environments that may shape their recommendations for changes to the drilling plan. But exchanges with locals at the New Jersey hearing were often testy, and the scientists frequently had to contend with the raw emotion and frustrations of people who are vehemently opposed to drilling of any kind.
“I just got compared to Hitler,” said Jacob Levenson, a BOEM marine biologist, after a particularly heated exchange. “People come here and they’re angry, and they might be for or against oil drilling. But our job is to refine that anger into a public comment to help us get to a robust environmental impact analysis.”
This style of hearing was different from a typical public hearing, where people often stand at a microphone and directly address government officials.
“I know some people are missing being able to stand up and make a statement with their peers around,” Brown said. “But what they’re gaining is hours of discussion with people who are intimately involved with the project.”
But to some, the unorthodox public hearing setup stifled public dissent.
In response, environmental groups from across New Jersey held their own “citizen public hearing” before the official event, just on the other side of the hotel. At least 200 people…