April 14, 2017
On April 6 Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told the National Ocean Industries Association that an executive order was forthcoming that would start the process of rewriting the five-year plan for the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The next day an op-ed in Morning Consult by Carl Bentzel began Big Oil’s public relations campaign to paint oil/gas exploration and drilling off the Atlantic coast as safe and oil-spill free given new technology and safeguards.
Mr. Bentzel argues that the “first steps should be responsible assessment of oil and gas resources in our South Atlantic Ocean.” So let’s start with seismic airgun blasting that is the essence of this exploration.
While proponents of seismic testing say the process is safe for marine life and will provide information for a public debate, neither point is factual.
Seismic airgun blasting is an old technology that blasts extremely loud sound waves miles below the seafloor in a hunt for oil deposits. Under just one permit, seismic testing can go on for up to one year. A seismic vessel can tow up to 96 airguns that can cover an area 21 times larger than the National Mall in Washington, D.C. These blasts are repeated every 10-12 seconds and can be heard for thousands of miles underwater. Seismic airgun blasts are one of the loudest noises in the oceans that even raises objections from the U.S. Navy.
Marine mammals rely on sound for feeding, communication, navigation and mating. Studies have found that seismic airgun blasting can cause hearing impairment as well as physiological and behavioral changes. BOEM has estimated that up to 11,748 bottlenose dolphins could be injured and possibly over a million would have their migration, breeding, feeding and other behaviors disturbed from a year of seismic testing. BOEM recognizes that effective mitigation efforts by seismic vessels could lower these numbers.
Other scientists specifically warn that seismic testing could bring the extinction to the endangered right whale.
This February, three months after the largest seismic testing ship in the world began exploring off the east coast of New Zealand, more than 600 pilot whales were found dead or dying on a remote shoreline. A local marine biologist said that seismic testing, of all the theories offered for this worst stranding in a century, was the most likely cause. Having dead and dying marine mammals on our Atlantic coast beaches would be a financial disaster for local tourism.
Seismic testing is equally harmful to our ocean’s other marine life. A 2014 research study off the coast of North Carolina found that the number of fish at a reef, an essential fish habitat, dropped 78 percent while limited seismic testing was in process nearby. Other scientific studies have found that seismic testing negatively impacts fish and reduces commercial fish catches by 40-80 percent. Sea turtles show avoidance and alarm responses to seismic testing. Even invertebrates like squid, crabs and scallops have been found to show stress response and even development delays and body malformations. There are no mitigation procedures to protect these marine animals from the impact of seismic testing.
Seismic testing will not result in an “informed debate” about the merits of offshore drilling because the results are proprietary and not made public. Each oil company must contract with its own seismic company to collect data on potential oil deposits resulting in the same ocean area being surveyed multiple times and thus magnifying the ecological and economic damage. In the end, the public will never know the true results of the tests. This would preclude informed debate about the “potential economic benefits” of offshore drilling and the requisite oil industrialization of the Atlantic coast.
Which brings us to the possible economic benefits of Atlantic cost offshore drilling versus the economic risk.
Today’s vibrant Atlantic coast economies are inextricably tied to clean coastal waters that support nearly 1.4 million jobs and contributes $95 billion to the annual gross domestic product, mainly through tourism, fishing and recreation. These industries are incompatible with offshore oil drilling and the infrastructure needed for oil and gas development.
There is no technology now or in the future that will guarantee no oil leaks or spills. Today’s “state-of-art production” is still resulting in oil leaks. In addition, human error has accounted for slightly over 20 percent of all outer continental shelf oil spills through 2012 according to federal data.
In addition, the Government Accountability Office recently reported on the performance of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement which was put into place after right after Deepwater Horizon to insure better government oversight of offshore drilling. The report cited continued structural and procedural deficiencies at BSEE which risk “weakening the bureau’s environmental compliance oversight capabilities”.
If plans to allow Atlantic drilling move forward, our magnificent beaches and pristine shorelines could face chronic oil leaks, as well as the potential for major spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The promise of comparatively miniscule economic development from drilling and the industrialization of shorefronts by infrastructure needed for oil and gas development pales in comparison to present and future Atlantic coast economic growth without drilling. But the risk of inherent oil leaks and spills to our coastal economy is real and totally unacceptable to our Atlantic seaboard residents and businesses.
Simply put, seismic airgun blasting and offshore drilling are not safe, risk-free endeavors. They threaten the Atlantic coast’s vibrant tourism, recreation and commercial fishing economies. Changing the face of the Atlantic coast to mirror that of the Gulf has been overwhelmingly rejected by those who live, work and play on the East coast — 1200 local Atlantic coast governments, the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast supported by over 35,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families, Atlantic fisheries management councils and scores of volunteer citizen groups.
The Obama administration recognized this opposition in its two-year process of developing the current five-year plan (2017-2022) and acted appropriately by removing Atlantic coast offshore drilling and subsequently denying seismic testing permits. The new administration should follow suit.
Frank Knapp is the president, CEO and co-founder of both the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.