Cities Stake Positions On Offshore Drilling

By Ken Little, posted Sep 11, 2015
Several local governments have passed resolutions against offshore oil and natural gas exploration and drilling. (Illustration by Mark Weber)
Offshore drilling in North Carolina remains a very real possibility. As elected officials weigh the pros and cons of seismic testing, similar debates are ongoing in the state’s shoreline communities.

Brunswick County commissioners last month reaffirmed their support for seismic surveys, a way to study potential offshore oil and natural gas exploration, which has the support of the Obama administration.

As things stand now, Brunswick County is the only local government in North Carolina to come out in support of seismic testing.   

A number of other coastal local governments, including Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, have gone on record as being against the federal government’s plan for the offshore activities.

Seismic testing uses reflective technology similar to that of sonar used in mapping the ocean floor, but specifically maps rock formations below the ocean floor to look for oil and gas deposits.

The Obama administration recently moved closer to oil and gas exploration off the Mid-Atlantic and South Atlantic coasts. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management approved a plan for seismic testing from Delaware to Florida.

The plan would allow for seismic testing in areas up to 400 miles offshore, covering an area roughly twice the size of California.

Federal officials have said that testing is needed to update decades-old data on offshore oil and gas reserves along the Eastern Seaboard. The decision met with approval from the energy industry and criticism from environmental groups.

At its July 21 meeting, the Wilmington City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing off the North Carolina coast.

“I think the city’s position of opposing seismic testing is reflected in the resolution. The city staff did not evaluate the issue or take a position,” city manager Sterling Cheatham said in an email.

New Hanover County commissioners have not formally addressed the question of seismic testing or offshore drilling.

“The board has not engaged in this debate,” said Chris Coudriet, New Hanover County manager.

Brunswick County commissioners in July unanimously voted for a resolution in support of seismic surveying.

The question came up in August of whether to change the board’s earlier stance to something more neutral until members could get more information.

But with a 2-2 split, that did not have enough votes to pass.

“I supported the original resolution, because after reviewing all of the information, I was not convinced there was enough concrete evidence to change my perspective on the issue,” Scott Phillips, chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, said in an email. “In order to stand for or against offshore drilling, I must know what is off our coast, and where it is. The only way to know for sure is to perform the seismic surveying.”

Kure Beach residents were an early voice in the campaign to block offshore drilling.

According to Oceana, an organization dedicated to ocean advocacy, more than 300 Kure Beach residents attended a meeting in January 2014 to oppose seismic airgun blasting.

“Ever since that fateful night in January, opposition to seismic airgun blasting and East Coast drilling has been mounting. Nearly 600 national, state and local elected officials have taken a public stance against offshore oil exploration and or development, including 70-plus coastal towns, cities and counties that passed resolutions opposing or voicing concern with the process,” according to the Oceana website.

Similar resolutions opposing offshore drilling have been passed in other area communities, including Sunset Beach in Brunswick County and Surf City in Pender County.

Robert Gisiner, of the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC), who spoke to Brunswick County commissioners at their recent meeting, said that the IAGC supports the Obama administration’s “all-of-the-above” energy approach.

“As a matter of fact, our technology not only supports oil and gas exploration and development activities, it is also used by the U.S. Geological Survey to map fault lines, the National Science Foundation to understand sea level change and by the offshore wind industry for citing facilities,” Gisiner said.

He said that as global energy demand increases, decisions about what areas are available for leasing “will have long-term implications for our nation’s energy security and revenue generation for both the federal government and coastal states.”

“This is why it is critical that the administration moves forward to process the Atlantic geophysical survey permits that have now been pending for over a year,” Gisiner said.

He addressed the concerns of opponents of offshore drilling.

“Many activists and non-governmental organizations continue to disseminate inaccurate assertions that are speculative, and anecdotal at best, pointing to what could, might or may potentially occur, but has not occurred in the 50 years of seismic surveying around the world,” he said.

Gisiner said there “is no scientific support for statements that sound from seismic surveys have significant negative impacts on marine life populations.”

He said the government has taken the position that no evidence exists “that serious injury, death or stranding by marine mammals can occur from exposure to airgun pulses.”

Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for U.S. Oceans at Oceana, took a very different stance on the issue earlier this year after the Obama administration expressed support.

“Seismic airguns are used to find oil and gas deep underneath the ocean floor. Their use can be very harmful to marine life. Oceana works hard to prevent the dangerous practice of seismic airgun blasting, which is the first step toward offshore drilling,” according to the Oceana website.

Savitz said the decision to move forward with seismic testing without additional research is premature and potentially dangerous.

She said that if seismic airguns are allowed in the Atlantic, “it will jeopardize wildlife as well as commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism and coastal recreation – putting more than 730,000 jobs in the blast zone at risk.”

“In its rush to finalize this proposal, the Obama administration is failing to consider the cumulative impacts that these repeated dynamite-like blasts will have on vital behaviors like mating, feeding, breathing, communicating and navigating,” Savitz said.

In March, more than 70 marine scientists sent a letter to President Obama urging him “to reject the Interior Department’s analysis and its decision to introduce seismic oil and gas surveys in the Atlantic.”

The letter states that the magnitude of the proposed seismic testing “is likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread” effects on fish and marine mammal populations, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

In February 2014, a letter signed by more than 100 scientists asked Obama “to wait on new science before permitting the use of seismic airguns in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the issue, it is sure to remain the topic of continued debate in North Carolina’s shoreline communities.
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