By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The largest U.S. oil and gas lobby group is seeking to convince Hispanic and black communities to support the Trump administration's proposed expansion of offshore drilling, arguing it would create high paying jobs, including for storm-displaced Puerto Ricans.
The American Petroleum Institute (API) launched its "Explore Offshore" campaign earlier this month to counter offshore drilling foes in coastal southeast states from Virginia to Florida, where lawmakers and governors on both sides of the aisle have expressed fear an oil spill could ruin tourism.
"We want to build support in minority communities because the message that increasing the supply of affordable energy and good paying jobs will resonate," said Erik Milito, API's director of Upstream and Industry Operations.
As part of the campaign, API has partnered with a number of black and Hispanic business groups, including the Virginia, Florida and North Carolina Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina African American Chamber of Commerce.
A Pew Research poll published in January showed that 56 percent of Hispanics and 54 percent of blacks opposed offshore drilling, compared to 48 percent of white people.
The Interior Department in January announced a proposal to open up nearly all U.S. offshore waters to drilling, triggering a backlash from coastal states that rely on tourism.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told a Senate panel in April that he is likely to scale back the proposal following meetings with coastal governors. Shortly after he unveiled his offshore drilling proposal, Zinke offered an exemption for Florida after he held a private meeting with Republican Governor Rick Scott.
The oil and gas industry is keen to pursue seismic testing in areas they believe hold the largest reserves along the southern Atlantic coast and to Florida's eastern Gulf shorelines.
The API campaign published op-eds in local newspapers this week, including one by Stephen Gilchrist, chair of South Carolina's African American Chamber of Commerce. In it he touts API's major talking point that oil and gas exploration jobs offer locals an average salary of $116,000 without requiring a college degree.
"It's a myth that communities of color are not interested in supporting offshore exploration," he wrote in South Carolina's Post and Courier. "I've personally attended town hall meetings up and down South Carolina's coast where there has been significant support for the economic opportunity offshore exploration holds - especially in communities that have been historically disenfranchised."
JOBS OUTWEIGH ENVIRONMENT
API, however, acknowledged it needs to hold community meetings and improve local outreach to sway minority communities that have been inclined to oppose offshore drilling.
Miriam Ramirez, a co-chair of the API's Florida campaign and a former Puerto Rico state senator said she thinks the lure of higher-paying jobs, especially for victims of 2017's Hurricane Maria, would create economic opportunities that outweigh environmental concerns.
"We have an influx of thousands of Puerto Ricans in Florida, including doctors and engineers who plan to relocate permanently," Ramirez said.
A study released in March by Oceana, an Ocean conservancy group, found Interior's offshore drilling plan would put more than 2.6 million jobs and nearly $180 billion in gross domestic product at risk for only two year's-worth of oil and just over one year's-worth of gas at current consumption.
"Jobs that come from offshore drilling do not guarantee local good paying jobs compared to the tourism industry, which can keep jobs local," said Pricey Harrison, a North Carolina state representative and president of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.
Julio Fuentes, president of Florida's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he is reaching out to new Puerto Rican evacuees, as well as existing local communities that are skeptical of offshore drilling, by hosting roundtables with business leaders and community organizations.
"I always like to talk about the safety aspect of it," Fuentes said.
"Since the BP (LON:BP) oil spill, there have been over 100 new industry standards put in place," he said, referring to the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 that caused tremendous damage to beaches and coastlines in Gulf coast states.
But environmental justice advocates counter that there is no way to guarantee safe offshore drilling.
Marce Gutierrez-Graudins, president of conservation group Azul, said it takes only one spill or accident to deprive lower-income Hispanic communities access to the shore, which she argues is an important form of escape from the stress of urban areas where many minorities live.
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