Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling in the Southeast Atlantic: What You Need to Know. What You Can Do. A Scuttlefish Feature. Part I.

by Carolyn Sotka

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Oil slick post Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Today, April 20th, 2015 marks the fifth anniversary of the the largest spill in the history of the petroleum industry and the worst environmental disaster in United States history – the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The explosion of this giant oil rig claimed eleven human lives, countless animal lives and took close to three months to cap while over 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico. What’s left is a lingering, toxic wound on coastal ecosystems and communities that has yet to heal.

In a recently released 5-year report on the health of fish, mammals and habitat by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), researchers have documented ongoing health effects on fish, sea turtles and critical habitat including coral reefs and a particularly alarming number of dolphin deaths. Dolphins living in those areas are also plagued by chronic lung disease and failed pregnancies. Even though the Gulf’s waters are a beautiful blue, it’s a still a bleak picture.

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A dolphin with oil on its skin on August 5, 2010 in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, over 3 months after the disaster. Photo by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries/Mandy Tumlin. 

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To help engage children in understanding the disaster, Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) “Where did the Oil Go?” film is a great artist’s rendering of where the oil went and what the long-term impact of the blowout has been and could continue to be.

It has been 1825 days since the Deepwater blowout and evidence of the ongoing affect on marine life and coastal economies continues to unfold. Despite this, in early January the Obama Administration has offered up a new swath of U.S. coast for oil and gas activities: the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

This issue glaringly reveals a tremendous disconnect between coastal communities and their respective state capitols. It has pitted constituents against governors, city against state, states against their neighbors and federal agencies against each other. It involves secret meetings, short cuts in the policy process, jurisdictional and regulatory confusion, and the masking of an old-way of doing business under the guise of newer, less harmful technology. It abounds with conflicts of interest over protecting endangered whales, important fisheries and a cultural way of life.

What follows is a Scuttlefish guide that dives into what you need to know about the who, what, why, when and where of oil and gas exploration and drilling in the the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast – and perhaps more importantly, what you can do about it. Part I will help you to understand this complex issue and the politics behind it. Part II will link you to the top-ten actions and a state by state guide to equip you to protect your coast and the ocean we all love.

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Teams of volunteers from the Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research and the International Bird Rescue Research Center worked tirelessly to clean birds covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon. Photo by Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace


A Hasty Decision

On January 29th, 2015, the Obama administration and Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau for Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) released its 2017–2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program (DPP). The draft plan lists 14 potential lease sites including a large portion of the U.S. Atlantic coast from Virginia to northern Florida that had previously been closed to oil and gas drilling for close to three decades.

Despite the plan being in draft form and the lack of a final environmental impact study (EIS), the process is moving on a fast track and also includes permits for seismic testing to identify offshore areas that may hold oil and gas reserves under the seabed. Past seismic exploration has led to a litany of terrible impacts on marine life. An urgent alarm has been sounded by conservationists, and many along the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast coast are also perplexed as to why their coastline was suddenly targeted and not northeastern or western states.

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The threat of malfunctions or explosions on oil rigs or pipelines is a lesson that seems to repeat itself time and time again. Photo by Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

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Watch Oceana’s award winning film Drill, Spill, Repeat?.

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Click on this infographic to blow it up.

The process of public hearings for seismic testing and the announcement of the three companies that applied for permits was seemingly designed specifically to catch drilling opponents offguard. The exploration region is slated for 50 miles offshore in federal waters, near the stormy, wave and hurricane-scoured edge of the eastern continental shelf. That leaves adjacent states whose boundaries don’t reach that far out, with little jurisdiction over this process aside from compliance with their own Coastal Zone Management Acts (CZMA). CZMA’s regulate state waters and are often influenced considerably by the political leanings of a state’s governor. South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley, for example, has come out strongly for offshore oil exploration – and South Carolina is included in the oil exploration plan. With respect to the latest draft, states where the governor is not behind oil and gas exploration are not included in the plan. So it’s fairly easy to connect the dots.

But over the last three months, hundreds of thousands of residents and many government officials have come out against offshore oil and gas along the Southeastern coast. As of April 16th, Oceana has helped over 50 coastal towns in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and New Jersey to pass city ordinances or resolutions against exploration or development of waters adjacent to their shores. On April 14, 2015, Oceana, delivered more than 420,000 signatures to the director of BOEM in opposition to any oil and gas activities. Over 550,000 signatures were gathered by the environmental community and delivered electronically. The resounding voice of the movement is ‘not in my backyard’ and ‘our coast is not for sale’.

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With 1.4 million jobs in tourism, commercial and recreational fishing and over $95 billion in gross domestic product on the line – not to mention the health and well being for those who love the coast and ocean there has never been more at stake. Photo courtesy of Adam Chandler Photography.


What is Seismic Exploration for Offshore Oil and Gas?

Seismic air-gun blasting is the first step to locate oil and gas reserves beneath the ocean floor. It basically involves towing enormous air-guns behind ships that release intense impulses of compressed air every 10 to 12 seconds, for days, weeks and even years on end. Although most of the energy from these acoustic shots is intended to search downward beneath the seafloor, significant energy travels outwards and can be heard throughout vast areas of the ocean, sometimes up to 1000 miles from the source. Also, according to BOEM’s own reports, shock waves associated with these in-water explosions have a velocity faster than the speed of sound in water.

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Image from Oceana’s report “A Deaf Whale is a Dead Whale”. Image courtesy of Oceana. 

The blasting has been shown to leave an enormous environmental footprint in the ocean. The noise from the blasts is one of the loudest human-created sounds on earth and can produce peak pressures of sound higher than virtually any invention to date. To put the loudness into context, a jet engine is about 195 decibels, seismic air guns are 250 decibels.

Until now, the loudest sound in the ocean (aside from volcanoes, earthquakes and such) was from blue whales who communicate using very loud, highly structured, repetitive low-frequency rumbling sounds that can travel vast distances underwater. The proposed exploration could create up to eight years of long-term acoustic pollution. That’s probably a deafening, fatal headache for many marine species.

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Video from Law/Street Media.


What are the Known Impacts of Seismic Exploration?

Imagine living next to a construction zone, where constantly you are subjected to loud, disruptive explosions while you’re trying to eat, sleep and function in your normal routine. Seismic blasts can have the same affect on marine life, harming and in some cases killing marine mammals, sea turtles and fish.

Impacts from air-gun blasts to marine mammals include disorientation, temporary and permanent hearing loss; abandonment of habitat; disruption of echolocation mating, feeding, vocalization and calving behaviors vital to survival. They lead to high stress and in some cases beach strandings and death.

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One of the most egregious marine mammal mortality events related to seismic testing was in 2012 in Peru. Photo by Reuters. 

In a region of Peru where seismic testing was occurring, 900 long-beaked common dolphins and black porpoises washed up dead. Post-mortem necropsies showed signs of hearing-related trauma; blood flowing from middle ears, fractures in their periotic ear bones, gas in their solid internal organs and severe acute pulmonary emphysema – a condition much like the bends – which could have been caused by decompression sickness from a rapid ascent to the surface after being terrified by the blasts.

Other impacts include disruption of loggerhead sea turtles nesting activities; fish migration and spawning; damage to fish ears and high mortality rates among fish eggs and larvae.

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NOAA researchers measure a dead Kemp’s ridley sea turtle on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Sea turtles are also threatened by seismic testing. Credit: NOAA.

One of the fish complexes at particular risk in the proposed testing area is the ecologically and commercially crucial snapper-grouper population. In a move to protect the snapper throughout its range, the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) on March 25th proposed Amendment 36 for new Special Management Zones (SMZs). SMZs would identify and protect areas critical for the species. These marine protected areas are proposed throughout the oil and gas exploration region and would include other protection measures such as Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) and Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC).

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“People are rightly concerned about the dangers of offshore oil spills, but seismic blasting is likely to have a terrible impact on Atlantic sea life before the first well is even drilled,” said Michael Jasny, Director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project told South Carolina’s The State newspaper.

Despite the science, Brian Straessle, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute – the oil industry’s main lobbying group, predictably argues, “Decades of experience and the best science and research all indicate that seismic surveys have little to no impact on marine wildlife populations.”

Yet documents from the BOEM, the very agency behind this plan, counteract Straessle’s claim. The BOEM’s own required draft environmental impact statement (EIS) estimates up to 138,000 ‘takes’ or disturbances to marine mammals could occur and result in serious injury or death. The BOEM also notes 13.5 million potential disturbances that would disrupt vital behaviors in marine mammals such as breathing, feeding, mating and communicating.


What about the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale?

Oceana’s report “A Deaf Whale is a Dead Whale summarizes independent and Federal studies that describe the harmful impacts of seismic testing. One of the species that may have the most to lose is the North Atlantic right whale. It’s been estimated that there are only 444 left on earth – the most endangered cetacean in U.S. waters, and a species imminently susceptible to extinction.

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A North Atlantic right whale and her calf. Photo: Wikipedia.

These whales are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Their habitat ranges from feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine to winter calving areas off Georgia and Florida. Their ability to calve and nurse requires warm, shallow waters and calm sea surfaces. Thus, the Southeast is the whale’s only known calving area. Yet despite being, a critical, irreplaceable habitat, this is the primary area for new drilling leases and seismic air cannon use.

On February 20, 2015, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service posted 50 CFR Part 226 Endangered and Threatened Species; Critical Habitat for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale; Proposed Rule. Further contradicting the BOEM, NOAA’s report proposes to significantly expand the whale’s protected range to reduce disturbances and other threats. The range includes a majority of the Southeast coast, and any seismic testing and other oil-related activities would be prevented if those activities jeopardize critical habitat or the species itself in any way.

Dr. Lisa Manning with NOAA’s NMFS Office of Protected Resources expressed her concern that “North Atlantic right whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and require Federal cooperation for their conservation; they are also designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and included on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. These are highly protected whales for a reason.” 


Who’s Against Seismic Testing and Oil and Gas Exploration in the Atlantic?

On March 5, 2015 seventy-five leading ocean scientists from the U.S. and around the world urged President Obama in a consensus letter to halt the planned oil and gas exploration program off the Atlantic coast writing: “…the magnitude of the proposed seismic activity is likely to have significant, long-lasting, and widespread impacts on the reproduction and survival of fish and marine mammal populations in the region.”

Oceana has been among the most vocal grassroots organizers. Through their Climate & Energy Campaign, Oceana has helped over 50 coastal towns, cities and counties to pass resolutions in opposition to offshore oil. Also, 65 members of Congress, more than 300 local elected officials, more than 160 conservation and animal welfare organizations, as well as the Billfish Foundation, the International Game Fish Association, the Southeastern Fisheries Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, have opposed the use of seismic air guns. Also, several engineers involved with the initial development of seismic testing technology are working, now thirty-years later, to find less harmful alternatives.

Samantha Siegel, with Oceana in Charleston, SC, is a formidable opponent when it comes to conservation measures. In 2008, with little experience in environmental activism, she educated herself and launched a successful grassroots effort to protect the land around Charleston’s storied, ancient Angel Oak tree in the face of a massive development that had been considered, even among area conservationists to be “a done deal.” “I like to say that I saved the tree and the tree saved me,” she says.

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Samantha Siegel and her conservation win – The Angel Oak Tree. Photo taken by Liz Segrist of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Samantha and other regional coordinators and organizations like the Surfrider Foundation and South Carolina’s Coastal Conservation League, have been at the center of this debate since its beginning. “Citizens of the southeast love their shores,” she says. “This huge public outcry represents their stewardship and reliance on healthy oceans for their livelihood.”

Read Siegel’s op-ed in the Charleston Post and Courier.

Joe Riley, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina and the longest serving mayor in U.S. history made his position very clear on drilling in March, 2015 when he told Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper, “We are not for sale. We don’t need to risk trading the quality of our environment for some prospective economic gain. There are other ways to grow our economy. South Carolina is on the move, people are moving here, and it’s a great place to do business. We don’t need this.”

Watch a YouTube clip of Mayor Riley’s testimony:

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A contract worker from Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) loads oily waste onto a trailer near Grand Isle, La., May 21, 2010, a month after the explosion. Photo by Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard/Marine Photobank.

Also, at risk is the preservation of historical sites and fishing activities of the African-American Gullah Geechee culture, which is protected through a designated corridor that is the only National Heritage Area in the U.S. to promote the living culture of this sea island population. The corridor extends from North Carolina through communities like Daufuskie Island in South Carolina and Georgia’s Sapelo Island down to northern Florida.

Siegel continues, “This is not just about the environment. It is a bi-partisan issue that threatens a way of life that has existed for hundreds of years. Everyone stands to lose.”


Why Only Exploit the Southeast Atlantic and not New England, Southern Florida or more of the West Coast?

When you look at a map of the proposed seismic testing area (see map below) it is clear that certain states are excluded; the entire West coast south of Alaska, New England and parts Florida (strangely open to seismic testing but not to drilling). The Department of Interior (DOI) estimates there are 3.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil on the outer continental shelf and 31.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The estimates are based on seismic surveys done in the early 1980s, and some energy industry experts say the true reserves may be far higher. Yet geologists from several of the targeted states disagree that there are any sizable reserves. Needless to say, that wouldn’t protect states from an accidental spill to their adjacent states – which could have even farther implications due to the north flowing Gulf Stream.

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This map shows proposed oil and gas seismic testing areas in the Southeast and other competing coastal interests such as: South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council’s proposed Essential Fish Habitat & Special Management Zones; NOAA’s proposed habitat expansion to protect calving and nursing areas for the North Atlantic right whale (Unit 2 shown); and the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, the only National Heritage area in the U.S. to promote the living culture of an African American population. 

The main legal means for states to take action against activities in federal waters along their coasts is via the state-by-state Coastal Zone Management Acts (CZMA). CZMA’s require that the 2017–2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program (DPP) or other federal actions must be in compliance with a state’s own CZMA. States where the governor does not support oil and gas activities are not part of the current DPP 5 year plan. On the other hand, states like South Carolina and North Carolina, whose governors are all-in for oil, are on a fast-track for seismic testing.

In 2011, several governors joined forces and asked President Obama to re-establish the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition. The chair of the coalition is governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina. Also a member is South Carolina’s Nikki Haley. According to spokeswoman Chaney Adams’ report to The State newspaper in an email. “Gov. Haley has always been a strong supporter of offshore exploration of oil and gas.” “It’s good for jobs – in a way that preserves our local environment, our ports and our tourism industry.”

On October 30, 2014, McCrory convened an invite-only meeting that was closed to the public. At the table were a handful of interested governors, state CZMA officials and representatives from the Center for Offshore Safety, the Institute for Energy Research and the Consumer Energy Alliance. It was here that the Governors coalition recommended to the President to proceed with the DPP in the Southeast. There was no platform at this meeting for opposition or public testimony in any way. 

“This is pretty big,” said Randy Sturgill of Oceana said in a released statement. “The decisions being made are going to affect for generations to come with regards to what our pristine beaches and Atlantic waters are going to look like. A lot of folks lives and livelihoods are depending on what’s going on behind those closed doors in Raleigh today.”

Meanwhile, the West Coast Governor’s Alliance issued a joint press release to the President and Congress reinforcing opposition to oil and gas leasing, exploration and development off the West coast. New England issued a similar statement that echoed the sentiment – which effectively offered protection of their coastline.


The politics behind oil drilling. Why now?

The 2017–2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Draft Proposed Program (DPP) is the first move towards oil and gas development since 2007 when Congress allowed the ban to expire and President George W. Bush lifted the moratorium on drilling. Plans were set in motion for exploration at that time but were then put on hold due to backlash from the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster and the intense focus on safety and environmental concerns.

“It’s a constant reminder of the damage that continues to reveal and manifest itself in countless ways,” reads a quote from Oceana’s new film “Drill, Spill Repeat? “about the lasting effects of the disaster, “and the stark reality of the government’s failure to restore the Gulf region, or improve industry practices. The Obama Administration has not done enough to prevent future oil disasters.”

While on the campaign trail, Obama emphasized the need to eliminate our reliance on petroleum as a source of energy. His first unofficial address to Congress included “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

Yet exploration for oil and gas has been part of President Obama’s energy plan since he referred to opening new areas for exploration and expansion of nuclear power during his first State of the Union Speech in February 2009. “To create more of these clean-energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives, and that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.”

In a September 2014 Mother Jones’ article, “How Obama Became the Oil President,” Michale Klare points out that despite Obama’s promises, oil is bigger than ever, production was never was reduced and in fact has gone up and the U.S. is consuming more oil than ever before. This production jump translated to the gas pump with prices dropping under $2.00/gallon which further ‘fueled’ demand and resurgence in popularity of gas-guzzler vehicles.


Who Stands to Benefit? Where are the jobs? 

The companies, – Spectrum, CGG Services, and GXT – all of which have offices in Houston, Texas, have applied for a series of permits throughout the proposed testing zone. In documents, the companies state that surveys would comply with coastal rules and no surveys will take place in State waters.

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Companies Like Spectrum Geo are Mapped out and Ready to Go.

Despite the fact that the draft EIS is still in review for seismic testing and the plan is still in draft form, the record of decision (ROD) was issued last summer and allowed for individual companies to submit permits for seismic testing.

Samantha Siegel told the Savannah Morning News, “I find it worrisome that seismic airgun testing applications are coming in before the overall program for offshore drilling is finalized. Oceana is currently tracking two application each in North Carolina and South Carolina, plus one in Georgia. I think seismic permits are coming in too fast,” she said. “It’s so the public won’t have a chance to intervene.”

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Current BOEM permit applications to conduct seismic air gun testing in the Mid and Southeastern Atlantic. Map Courtesy of Oceana. 

Several state agencies are expected to make decisions on the seismic permits soon. In fact, in South Carolina seismic testing permits were posted on the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) website with public comment opened for only 7 days – unlike the typical 30-60 days called for by the legal public notice procedure. After Oceana pointed out this unusual change in protocol, the period was extended.

Incredibly, any future data collected from seismic activities would remain proprietary. This means the public would have no access to the information gathered by private companies drilling and testing off public shorelines. Additionally, coastal states currently have no revenue sharing plan with these companies, which leaves a big question as to who will benefit from oil and gas exploration in the region?

The BOEM’s own assessment concedes that there will be little immediate economic benefit for nearby communities and that a large proportion of workers during the exploration and development phases are likely to be sourced from other regions.


Are there Less-Damaging Technologies than Seismic Airguns?

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Photo courtesy of Adam Chandler Photography.

Companies have recently touted their new 3D seismic testing as having a lower environmental impact – particularly compared to older technologies. Yet the recent seismic permit applications have been submitted for older 2D geophysical surveys – virtually the same technique used thirty years ago.

There are less harmful alternatives being developed, such as marine vibroseis, a surveying method which uses vibrations – not air – and has a lower peak intensity than the airgun, but a longer pulse length.

According to a 2013 interview with Marine Science Today, Oceana marine scientist Matthew Huelsenbeck, there’s reason for further research: “[marine vibroseis] should be considered as a viable alternative to airguns,” and “could completely phase out airguns in three to five years in U.S waters with the appropriate policies put in place.”

Of course, any type of testing comes along with its own set of consequences, and due to its sustained pulse, marine vibroseis may produce its own effects. Ultimately, there are no short answers and a comprehensive environmental analysis must be completed before any conclusions are drawn.

Here’s Part II of this Series. The top-ten actions you can take, along with a state-by-state guide to equip you to protect your coast and the ocean we all love.


More Information.

Listen to other 5-year retrospectives like Science Magazine’s podcast and Scientific American’s podcast.

Listen to an NPR Florida podcast on other grassroots responses throughout the Southeast.

Check out Southern Environmental Law Center for current updates on the law and policy front associated with offshore drilling in the Southeast.

Listen to the Diane Rehm Show – The Environmental Outlook: The White House Proposes New Offshore Drilling Sites and NPR’s Obama Administration To Allow Drilling Off Southeastern Atlantic Coast.

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