Making an impactful public comment in a power player-dominated debate
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As a former debate coach and trial lawyer, I am constantly encouraging folks to engage in the public notice and comment process.

Along with voting in elections and serving on juries, it’s a way to directly impact government, but too few people are aware of how the system works or how to influence it.

In truth, issues decided through the notice and comment process can get rather complex and difficult for the average layperson to decipher, in order to determine their own best interests and how to advocate for the them.

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Take for example important questions involving national economic and security issues currently open for public comment on the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Management proposed rule (BOEM-2017-0050-0001).

 

Under direction from the “America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” executive order signed by President Trump in April, BOEM has requested public comments on a plan to reconsider a ban on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a contentious issue which, somewhat atypically, aligns the interests of environmentalists with military industrialists — while pitting both these groups against the oil and gas industry.

Following political backlash from BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 that spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf, BOEM’s five-year leasing plan which was produced in 2015 — governing oil and gas leases from 2017 through 2022 — significantly shrank the areas open to offshore drilling.

According to a study conducted by Quest Offshore, a petroleum industry consulting firm, drilling restrictions in the Gulf have meant 3.5 million fewer barrels of domestic oil production per day, costing roughly 800,000 jobs, $200 billion in federal revenue, and $1 trillion in economic activity.

“It’s a big deal,” sums up Jack Belcher, executive vice president of HBW Resources, a Houston-based provider of strategic consulting services for energy and transportation businesses.

“At the very least the issue should be opened up to public debate,” says Belcher, who also serves as vice president of the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA).

How the Players Line Up

Opening the issue up for debate and a potential change in national policy on drilling, of course, is precisely what BOEM’s notice for public comments on its existing five-year plan does.

The public notice and comment process amounts to an open debate, essentially, with the issuing agency acting as moderator and final judge. (Caveat: many public comments are kept sealed due to claims of trade secrets, limiting the true “openness” of the process.)

As mentioned, the main debaters so far in the BOEM proposed five-year leasing plan review include (unsurprisingly) the oil and gas industry on the “pro” side of the argument, lined up against environmental, fishing, and tourism interests -- plus the Pentagon -- on the “against” side.

Groups opposed to opening the eastern Gulf naturally cite the risk of major accidents such as Deepwater Horizon when making their case. This environmental damages resulting from the disaster are estimated at approximately $60 billion.

Taking an entirely different tack for those opposed to reconsidering the five-year plan review, the Department of Defense claims drilling operations in the eastern Gulf would create serious impediments to its various weapons testing activities in the region, framing the argument along national security lines.

Oil and gas industry representatives opposing the Pentagon-Environmentalist coalition argue great strides have been made in terms of drilling safety practices since the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The industry attempts to counter the Pentagon with its own claims about the national security value of drilling in the Gulf, pointing to the basic strategic importance of energy, beyond merely economic benefits such as tax revenues and job creation.

In other words, the country needs its own domestic sources of oil and gas to be safe and secure, and that means the eastern Gulf should be opened up, so goes the argument in favor of re-evaluating the five-year leasing plan.

“We have a long history of successful multiple use of federal lands and oceans,” argues Belcher, whose CEA organization supports a more lenient leasing policy for drilling in the eastern Gulf. “We have the capability to balance national defense goals with the need to safely benefit from strategic domestic natural resources.”

What Makes a Comment Count

For individuals who care to weigh in on this issue (or any other public notice) and submit an effective comment for consideration, it’s important to bear in mind how an agency such as BOEM processes and evaluates submissions.

First off, a simple statement of sentiment for or against a proposed rule carries no weight whatsoever. A position must be supported by facts — the more, the better — and a well-reasoned argument. Comments such as, “I oppose drilling in the eastern Gulf,” without a solid rationale, backed by firm evidence, will effectively be routed straight into the reviewing agency’s proverbial “round file.”

This isn’t a voting process. It’s more akin to a trial, where expert witnesses offer their interpretation of the evidence and lawyers arguing their spins on the fact pattern of a case attempt to persuade a judge or jury.

Submitting an effective public comment entails combining the qualities of a well-informed expert witness with those of a persuasive trial lawyer.

If you want to submit an effective comment on an important issue such as drilling in the eastern Gulf, you need to research the facts and come up with a cogent argument.

Of course, you could simply mimic a well-constructed comment already made by someone else, but duplicative submissions bears little more weight than a simple, “I’m in favor,” or “I oppose” comment that lacks supporting facts and reasoning. Remember, this is not a voting process, but a debate.

With regard to BOEM’s five-year plan for drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, the main lines of debate have been drawn midway through the open comment period — which closes on August 17 — pitting the various major interest groups described above against one another.

At this point, you might introduce a completely new line of argument to the mix.

It’s more likely, however, that with a little research and a rhetorical creativity you can put your spin on a comment that supports one side or the other in the Pentagon-Environmentalist-versus-Oil-and-Gas argument — and garner the BOEM’s attention in so doing.

John W. Davis II is founder and CEO of N&C Inc., a provider of solutions such as Regendus that help advocates analyze complex content, discover insights, and better represent the interests of clients and stakeholders.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.