TRENTON - New Jersey's environmental chief told lawmakers on Monday that the BP oil spill would not affect the state's tourism and fishing industries this summer.
Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Robert Martin told an Assembly panel that oil would not reach the Jersey Shore until October or November, in the unlikely event that it touches the area at all.
Last month, the DEP formed a gulf spill team to monitor the potential effect on the region of the oil rig explosion on April 20 that has unleashed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. But Martin told the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee that a series of unlikely events would have to occur for the oil to reach New Jersey, which has at stake $38 billion tourism and $2 billion seafood industries.
Factors that would increase the likelihood of New Jersey's being affected include nearby waters becoming dramatically warmer; alternately, hurricanes could push oil in the state's direction, he noted.
Last week, official estimates of the amount of oil spewing into the gulf bumped up dramatically and frighteningly, to perhaps 40,000 barrels a day.
"This is really a catastrophe," said Susan Lozier, a professor of physical oceanography at Duke University. "We still don't know how much oil, and we don't know when it's going to stop."
"We're all monitoring the situation closely because it's such a big event," said Jeff Kohut, a Rutgers University oceanographer who is a member of the New Jersey spill task force.
But for now, at least, Martin and other experts say it looks as though the gulf spew will be a nonevent along the New Jersey coast, even if significant quantities of oil eject through the Florida straits and make it into the Atlantic.
The same Gulf Stream current that would deliver the oil into the North Atlantic also is likely to drag it away from mid-Atlantic shores - even North Carolina's, said Lozier.
Near Cape Hatteras, the powerful Gulf Stream makes a very sharp right and flows toward Spain and Portugal. Rings and whorls sometimes spin off the main current and swirl toward the continental shelf, about 100 miles off the mid-Atlantic coast.
But even if the oil made it to the continental shelf, Kohut said, currents would somehow have to direct it toward the beaches. That set of circumstances is unlikely.
"The possibility is not zero," said Kohut, "but it's close."
At Monday's hearing, Martin noted that even if oil did hit the local coast, New Jersey would see tar balls, "not the kind of muck you see in Louisiana right now."
Still, he emphasized the state was taking no chances.
The DEP has held conference calls on the matter with coastal mayors, state and federal lawmakers, the Office of Emergency Management, the State Police, and Homeland Security, he said. Martin said officials are working through potential scenarios and making sure they have equipment needed to respond.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, voiced concern after the hearing that fisheries and migratory birds will be affected, noting that the bluefin tuna, part of the state's fishing industry, spawn in the Gulf of Mexico.