ASBURY PARK  — New Jersey environmental leaders fear that an oil spill off its famous beaches would devastate its $44 billion tourism economy, and are rallying opposition to President Donald Trump's plan to open most of the nation's coastline to drilling.

More than a dozen groups held a rally in the driving rain Wednesday on the Asbury Park boardwalk, calling on the federal government to drop the plan. They said the risk of a catastrophic oil spill is real — and completely preventable by not allowing offshore drilling.

The gathering was one of many similar events that have taken place around the country since the plan was announced on Jan. 4, and elected officials from both parties have joined to oppose it.

"What Trump did was target the oceans from one end of the country to the other," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "We are going to send a very clear message to the fossil fool in the White House: hands off our beaches."

Many business and energy groups support the plan, saying it will enable America to be less dependent on foreign energy. In announcing the plan to open up the outer continental shelf for drilling, the U.S. Interior department said offshore drilling will enable the country to better compete with other oil-rich nations.

"By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance," said Vincent DeVito, a counselor for energy policy at the Interior department.

The department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is holding meetings around the country to answer questions about the plan. But those meetings will not include public testimony. Instead, those wishing to comment must submit written testimony online or hand-deliver written copies to officials at the meetings, including one Feb. 14 just outside Trenton.

That was one of the main reasons the environmental groups held their rally Wednesday — to let as many people as possible speak out against the drilling plan.

"Frankly, I'm (angry) I have to be here again," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "What does it take for the federal government to understand that the people of New Jersey want a clean, wild, pristine ocean? Once again, we have to tell the federal government 'Keep your hands off our ocean.'"

"The Trump administration has blatantly disregarded the voices of the public and elected officials from both parties who have clearly opposed offshore drilling since Day 1," added Samantha Kreisler of the NY/NJ Baykeeper group.

Doug O'Malley, director of Environment NJ, cited the damage from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The ocean and the Gulf took a body blow," he said. "We don't want to see those impacts anywhere near the Jersey shore."

(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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