NOAA should heed community’s voices against offshore drilling

Charleston Post and Courier
November 1, 2018

BY PAUL SANDIFER, Dr. Paul Sandifer is a former director of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (retired) and former senior scientist and chief science adviser for NOAA’s National Ocean Service (retired).

BY GEOFF SCOTT, Dr. Geoff Scott is the former director of the NOAA Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research and acting director of the Hollings Marine Laboratory at Fort Johnson (retired).

Leaders from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C., came to Charleston last week to listen to our community and discuss important ocean issues. These efforts couldn’t come at a better time, as waters off of South Carolina are currently on the table for new offshore exploration and drilling.

We applaud NOAA for taking time to listen to real community voices, and the message is clear — locals don’t want offshore drilling. We want clean, thriving oceans, and a coastal environment where protection of natural resources and our coastal heritage are safeguarded.

The lifeblood of coastal South Carolina is the coast. One that’s oil-free. Pristine sandy shores, thriving salt marshes teeming with marine organisms and wildlife and salty waters draw millions of visitors each year, fueling a booming tourism industry. Extensive coastal wetlands support bountiful marine ecosystems and act as nursery grounds for species that sustain recreational and commercial fishing both inshore and offshore.

These coastal industries generate billions of dollars for the state each year and deliver consistent incomes to thousands of hardworking South Carolinians. But more than jobs and revenue, South Carolina’s ample natural resources define our way of life on the coast. They allow for a very special quality of living, where you can slow down enough to take in the unlimited beauty of Lowcountry beaches and marshes or enjoy freshly caught seafood.

It’s this quality of life that we’re not willing to risk for an unneeded expansion of oil and gas activities. Accepting the oil industry would inevitably lead to degradation of coastal waters and resources. Future consideration of energy development along our coasts should be forward-thinking and focused on solar and other forms of renewable energy that would support the creation of “green” jobs.

The negative impacts of offshore drilling are obvious. There’s the looming threat of another Deepwater Horizon-like disaster as well as the smaller leaks and spills that occur during day-to-day operations. The heavy industrialization that goes hand-in-hand with drilling would dramatically alter the character of coastal communities. Spreading slicks and an industrialized coast could hinder tourism, fishing and recreation economies and put local jobs at risk.

Many still in NOAA likely will recall the herculean efforts that were required of it and other federal agencies in responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This spill was a wholly human-caused environmental calamity of unimaginable magnitude that continued unabated for months. Its effects are still impacting the environment and the health of people in the Gulf nearly a decade later, and negative effects are likely to continue for many more years. And it was preceded by the 1979 Ixtoc well blowout that was not capped for over 9 months.

Preceding any oil and gas development would be the harmful exploration process, called seismic airgun blasting. Creating one of the loudest man-made sounds in the ocean, this exploration can have damaging effects too — stunting catch rates in some commercial fish species and killing or harming organisms from the base of the ocean food chain all the way up to whales and dolphins.

Exploration and development of oil and gas in the Atlantic would bring irreversible changes to our state with little returns. At current consumption rates, the economically recoverable oil and gas resources off South Carolina are estimated as sufficient to meet domestic demand for only six days and five days, respectively. A handful of days’ worth of product for a potential lifetime of oily, toxic footprint is not worth the risk. Our coast would be scarred with drilling infrastructure long after the oil runs out and those jobs are gone. Green jobs, such as those associated with renewable energy development, would help diversify our energy sources for a more economically sound future and jobs that would last.

As former NOAA employees, we appreciate NOAA officials coming to our state to hear from those who have the most to lose if offshore drilling becomes a reality here. NOAA has the knowledge and authority to help protect our coast from this bleak outcome, and we respectfully request that it do so. Healthy oceans have a lot to offer, but we can reap those benefits only if our waters remain clean and our coasts stay oil-free.

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