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Offshore drilling debate renewed following Romney comments

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By unveiling a federal energy plan to ramp up offshore oil drilling along the Atlantic seaboard, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney revived debate among New Jersey environmental and industry groups, with each side presenting the economic benefits of stopping or allowing the practice.

"We're not going to begin to attract the jobs we so desperately need without a strong energy program, and that means offshore oil and natural gas exploration," said Jim Benton, executive director of the New Jersey Petroleum Council. "New Jersey has commerciable product available off its coastline that needs to be considered and explored. But we need to have the latest scientific information available to do that, and that comes from seismic testing."

But earlier this month, state legislators and environmental groups pushed back on a plan approved by the U.S. Department of Interior for seismic testing off the Jersey coast, saying it would hurt tourism-related activity, which generated $38 billion for the state's economy and supported 312,000 jobs in 2011.

"Oil exploration and offshore drilling in the Atlantic seaboard would put our coastal economy in peril," Assemblyman John F. McKeon (D-Madison) said in a statement. "We also cannot risk further contamination of our oceans from a possible oil spill. The worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history caused by an explosion in a BP rig in the Gulf has shown us that oil and water are a deadly mix."

To highlight the economic impact of a New Jersey oil spill, Jeff Tittel, director of the state chapter of the Sierra Club, pointed to the summer of 1988, when medical waste washed up onto a 50-mile stretch of the shore and triggered a significant drop in tourism, which he said caused the area to lose at least $1 billion in revenue that year.

"We need our government to protect our beaches, not to have them threatened from drilling and oil spills. The only oil we want to see on our beaches is suntan oil," Tittel said in a statement.

But Benton argued there are "significant standards in terms of exploration for oil and natural gas off our coastline" that would prevent disasters and keep beaches safe.

"Just like the fracking wastewater issue, there are industry standards and multiple levels of government rules that govern these types of practices," Benton said. "We need to be embracing all forms of energy to meet those needs and have a sound competitive energy market, and we need to test and drill to do that."

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