On Friday, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) — surrounded by a bipartisan coalition of local and state lawmakers — signed into law the country’s strongest ban on offshore drilling.
“This was a direct response to the Trump administration,” Murphy told ThinkProgress in an exclusive interview prior to the bill signing, referencing the administration’s proposed plan to open up nearly all federal waters to oil and gas drilling. “This one touched a nerve in New Jersey.”
Murphy, who has made environmental and climate action a priority since winning the governorship in 2017, described the offshore drilling ban as the most bipartisan bill he has signed during his first months in office. The bill, which passed unanimously in the state senate, was supported by groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Sierra Club.
The bill does three things to limit the extraction of fossil fuels off of New Jersey’s coast — it bans drilling in state waters, gives more power to the state’s environmental agency to review drilling proposals in federal waters, and bans the construction of infrastructure in state waters meant to help transport gas or oil extracted offshore back onshore.
The bill signing coincided with the eight year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest marine oil spill in history. Opponents of offshore drilling in New Jersey cite the potential of oil spills like the Deepwater horizon blowout as proof that offshore drilling could imperil the state’s coastline, which supports tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in non-oil revenue annually.
“The New Jersey shoreline is a $38 billion economic engine,” Murphy said. “It is home to some incredibly rare species. It’s very fragile, but also a very important and lucrative asset for our state. When the Trump administration announced its intention to drill offshore, people went crazy on both sides.”
New Jersey isn’t the first state to ban offshore drilling in state waters. In 1994, following years of opposition by local environmental groups and the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, the California state legislature banned new offshore drilling leases in state waters, which typically run several miles from the shore out to sea (anywhere from three to nine nautical miles, depending on the state). But New Jersey is the first state to explicitly ban infrastructure in state waters, which could dissuade fossil fuel companies from drilling in federal waters by raising the cost of extraction.
Without being able to rely on infrastructure like pipelines, for instance, to bring oil from federal waters to transportation vessels onshore, companies would be forced to utilize massive floating tanks or transfer the fossil fuels directly onto ships for market — steps that would make oil and gas extraction expensive, especially with current oil prices so low.
“Even if you’re drilling offshore, you’ve got to get the oil or the gas onto the shore somehow, and that would require construction through state waters,” Murphy said, calling the infrastructure ban “equally powerful” as parts of the bill that more explicitly ban offshore drilling.
Still, Murphy acknowledged that New Jersey’s offshore drilling ban can only do so much to prevent a potential oil spill from impacting the state’s coastline — which is why he is working with other states to pass similar bans. So far, Murphy says the work has been mostly on an “ad-hoc” basis, but he isn’t ruling out the idea that New Jersey might team up with other states along the Atlantic Coast to form some kind of official coalition against offshore drilling.
In that sphere, Murphy would likely have ready allies in almost every governor along the Atlantic coastline. Only Maine Governor Paul LePage (R) supports the Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposal, while governors in New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have all publicly come out against the proposal.
“If you have a coastline, I think it’s a natural, visceral reaction that this is just wrong,” Murphy said. “It’s wrong from an economic impact, it’s wrong from an environmental impact.”
Beyond signing into law the nation’s strongest offshore drilling ban, Murphy has big plans for the Garden State’s environmental future. While his predecessor, Chris Christie (R), pursued an environmental agenda marked by support for fossil fuel infrastructure and criticism of renewable energy programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), Murphy is working to make New Jersey an example of progressive environmental action.
So far, Murphy has begun the process for the state to re-enter RGGI, has signed a bill requiring the state to adhere to the Paris climate agreement, and has begun work to open the state’s shorelines to offshore wind production. Murphy also wants to make sure that environmental justice is at the core of his administration’s environmental agenda, and is working with the New Jersey Port Authority to address issues of air pollution and asthma in Newark.
“I think politics too often gum up the environmental agenda, which I think is frankly outrageous,” Murphy said. “We did have a governor who tried to fit his policies into a personal, national, narrative. Those days are over here.”