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 held 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 the agency provides. People can also hand BOEM 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 will take place Wednesday in Hamilton, New Jersey, just outside the state capitol of Trenton.
"They're dodging democracy," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of New Jersey's Clean Ocean Action environmental group, which will hold a "citizens' hearing" before the BOEM one begins. "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."
Trump'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 parties oppose it. But energy groups and some business organizations support it as a way to become less dependent on foreign energy. An Interior Department official quoted on the BOEM home page announcing the drilling plan praised it as a way for the U.S. to achieve "energy dominance."
Tracey Blythe Moriarty, a BOEM spokeswoman, said the "open house" format lets people speak directly with agency staff to learn about the drilling proposal, adding, "We find this approach to be more effective than formal oral testimony."
Many attendees at past meetings disagree.
Environmentalists rallied on the steps of the California state capitol in Sacramento before a BOEM 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 agency set up informational displays at its Feb. 8 meeting, including one titled "Why Oil Is Important."
"Californians have adamantly exposed expansion of oil drilling," because of its effects on wildlife, oceans and beaches, David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay in San Francisco, told The Associated Press this week. "So the outcry here against the administration's outrageous proposal is no surprise."
Before a Feb. 8 meeting in Tallahassee, Florida, drilling foes invoked the Deepwater Horizon disaster that fouled the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and said they want to ensure that 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 BOEM 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.