April 25, 2016
By Tim Devaney
To some, the Atlantic Coast conjures visions of New England lighthouses, sunrises in the Chesapeake Bay and tourists flocking to the white sands of Myrtle Beach.
To others, it is an untapped resource that could provide millions of Americans with wind energy and oil in subsequent generations. Companies salivate at the prospect of offshore developments.
“It’s the Saudi Arabia of wind,” said Claire Douglass, campaign director at the environmental group Oceana. “There’s a ton of wind where you need it, when you need it. This will be a key piece of the solution to our energy needs in the region.”
The tensions between those two visions will compete in the next decade as the nation decides whether the Atlantic can be used for both energy development and tourism.
The Atlantic has long been seen as a spot for potential oil drilling.
Opening up sections of the Atlantic to drilling was a significant part of the Obama administration’s energy policy. The plan had momentum not so long ago, when gas prices were approaching $5 per gallon.
But just last month, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management removed the Atlantic from a list of potential drilling locations. The administration said it was changing course, partly because of concerns
expressed by coastal communities that feared drilling could wreak havoc on tourism and commercial fishing.
The move dismayed oil companies but cheered environmentalists. Both sides believe the historically low gas prices had something to do with the decision, but local businesses up and down the coast, and even the Pentagon, also weighed in against the plan.
The opposition highlighted the difficulty faced by proponents of opening up the Atlantic.
“Where we drill, we spill,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, evoking images of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil industry believes too much fertile ground is considered out of bounds.
Sparing a few drilling locations in the Gulf and off the coast of Alaska, more than 85 percent of the North American outer continental shelf is “off limits” to drilling, according to Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association.
“They were just looking for an excuse to pull the Atlantic out,” he said.
The fight for the Atlantic is far from over.
Industry groups plan to lobby the next president to revise the Obama administration’s approach to offshore drilling. They are also talking to Congress about a legislative fix that could potentially take the decision out of the administration’s hands.
“This doesn’t mean there is less interest in the Atlantic. It just means we have to wait,” said Christopher Guith, senior vice president for energy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Opening up the Atlantic for wind also faces challenges.
Companies are particularly interested in investing off the coast of New England, where the wind is strong and the waters are shallow enough to secure turbines to the ocean floor.
“That’s one of the factors that makes the Atlantic a more favorable place for wind,” said Taurel. “It’s super windy out there.”
The Obama administration has been more supportive of wind development. It has approved the Cape Wind Project off the coast of Massachusetts, which it says could provide enough electricity to power 61,000 homes, but development has been slowed by a lawsuit from the local community.
The Interior Department is also considering approving commercial leases for another 10 offshore wind farms along the Atlantic Coast that are in different stages of development.
But, so far, no commercial offshore wind farms are operational.
The Block Island Wind Farm — which is subject to state rather than federal approval because it is within three miles of shore — is the furthest along in development and is expected to be completed this summer.
Environmentalists support wind over oil, but they caution these turbines must be carefully placed in locations where they will not harm endangered species such as the right whale.
There is also pressure for the new wind farms to not disrupt commercial fishing activities. And coastal towns have requested that these wind farms be placed far enough into the sea that they are out of sight.
Wind developers say they are trying to be as accommodating as possible to both the beach towns and marine life.
The potential for wind energy is endless, they say.
“It’s amazing, to me, that you don’t have one single offshore wind farm in the U.S.,” said Danish Ambassador Lars Gert Lose. “The conditions in the Atlantic are excellent, even better than in Denmark.”
The Danish-based DONG Energy came to the U.S. last year to invest in wind energy. The company is in the process of securing its second lease to build a wind farm along the Atlantic Coast.
“They wouldn’t be investing here if the conditions weren’t this good,” the ambassador said.
One reason why wind developers are so excited is because the Atlantic wind blows strongest along the coast where the biggest cities are located, which will make it easier to transmit the electricity to the population hubs.
“If we develop the Atlantic Coast, there is enough wind to meet our electricity demands in those states,” said David Carr, general counsel at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Environmentalists hope wind can help displace coal as a leading producer of electricity.
“Even if I buy an electric car, the electricity I’m using is probably coming from coal,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The explosion and oil spill in 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico haunts efforts to drill in the Atlantic. The disaster was devastating to communities up and down the Gulf, and communities on the Atlantic are wary about a sequel.
“If we start drilling,” said Frank Knapp, president of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, “we could have the same problems here that happened in the Gulf.”
If the Atlantic Coast suffered a similar oil spill, “the fish could be poisoned and would be unsafe to eat,” said Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
A major oil spill would also turn away tourists from coastal beaches, critics say, which would hit hotels, restaurants and other shops in those towns.
“We’re selling sand. Tourists come here for the beach. That’s our big draw,” said Joe DaBiero, president of the Virginia Beach Hotel Association.
“If they can’t go to the beach, or walk on the sand or swim in the water, they aren’t coming,” he added.
These fears motivated Billy Keyserling, mayor of Beaufort, S.C., to rally hundreds of coastal communities to stand against the Obama administration’s plan to open the Atlantic for drilling.
“We’ve invested so much money in tourism,” Keyserling said. “Any sort of drilling accident could be devastating.”
Local business owners agree.
“The Atlantic Coast is built around tourism, and it is simply incompatible with drilling for oil,” said Knapp. “We spend millions and millions of dollars to get people to come here.”
“It ripples through the economy when someone doesn’t get in their car and drive to Charleston, drive to Myrtle Beach, drive to Hilton Head Island,” Knapp said.
But oil companies say this is a “scare tactic” employed by environmentalists to stop them from drilling.
The U.S. is one of the only countries on either side of the Atlantic not to explore what’s underneath the ocean floor, oil companies say. They insist drilling can be done more safely than in the past.
Oil companies have installed new safety features they say will guard against future disasters. These include spill response technologies that prevent leaks from growing and mechanisms to contain the oil, Guith explained.
“You can never promise 100 percent. You can never say, ‘This will never happen again,’ ” Guith said. “But you can lessen the risk.”
Before they drill, energy developers must first conduct seismic testing to find the oil and determine how much there is beneath the Atlantic.
Government studies suggest there may be more than 9 billion barrels of oil and 68 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under the Atlantic, but industry officials caution that these numbers were calculated decades ago and may significantly underestimate the amount of resources.
Seismic testing would help oil companies get a better idea of the amount of oil and gas under the Atlantic, but it is nearly as controversial as drilling. Critics say the sounds emitted can kill fish, affect their reproductive systems and cause them to migrate elsewhere. This is a concern for coastal communities that rely on commercial fishing, as well as for environmentalists that want to preserve marine life.
But oil companies say seismic testing has come a long ways in recent years, and it can be done safely without harming nearby fish.
“They make it sound like if you do seismic testing, all the fish will roll over dead, and that is not the case,” Luthi said.
“We start with a very, very low sound and gradually increase it, so if there are fish in the area that don’t like the noise, they can move out of the way,” he explained.
“If any fish become trapped in the area, we shut the survey down and wait until they leave,” added Andy Radford, senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute.
The Obama administration has not approved any permits to conduct seismic testing in the Atlantic.
“It doesn’t make any sense to do seismic testing to determine what oil might be under the ocean if we’re not going to be drilling for it anyways,” said Knapp.
But it is “negligent” for the Obama administration to “not even determine what’s there,” Guith said.
The most recent seismic tests were conducted decades ago and may not provide an accurate depiction of the oil reserves in the Atlantic, he explained.
There may be enough oil in the Atlantic to make the U.S. energy independent, industry officials say, but they will never know until they complete seismic testing.
“There is no guarantee the Atlantic contains oil, but all the features are there,” said Luthi.
“We’ve found similar geological formations here as there are off the coast of Western Africa, where they’ve found quite a bit of oil,” he added. “So we wonder if there’s a lot of oil here, as well.”
But Oceana’s Douglass said the U.S. would be foolish to rely on “archaic, dirty fossil fuels that will eventually run out.”