During its meeting Tuesday evening, the Wilmington City Council is scheduled to discuss an issue that could have economic and environmental implications for the Cape Fear region. On the council’s agenda is a proposed resolution in opposition to seismic testing and offshore drilling activities off the North Carolina coast.
Should council members approve the resolution, Wilmington would join a growing number of municipalities along the southeastern Atlantic Coast in opposing the Obama Administration’s proposal to open up offshore tracts for oil and gas exploration. Seismic testing would be done to see where potential energy resources might lie.
According to news reports earlier this year, communities that have gone on record in opposition to the idea of testing and subsequent exploration include St. Augustine, Florida; Tybee Island, Georgia; as well as Charleston and other coastal communities in South Carolina.
The text of Wilmington’s proposed resolution cites several factors that allegedly make seismic testing and energy exploration problematic: potential harm from high-decibel underwater blasts on marine and aquatic life; the risk of environmental damage from exploratory and commercial drilling, extraction and transportation of oil and gas; and potential threats to coastal and river wetlands from such offshore activity.
Lindsey Deignan, a Wilmington resident and doctoral candidate in marine biology at University of North Carolina Wilmington, plans to speak in support of the resolution. She will represent the Cape Fear Chapter of Surfrider Foundation.
“We’re happy to have people talking about this tonight,” she said Tuesday afternoon. “Our primary concern about the seismic testing and offshore drilling is that they are both practices that are environmentally risky. Here in our coastal town there are many industries that rely on a healthy ecosystem. In addition ... most people live in Wilmington because of its location and access to healthy environments. We see oil drilling as a risk to our local economy and to our coastal environment.”
Deignan said the foundation is also concerned about seismic testing’s possible harm to marine life.
“The methods used in seismic testing are known to be harmful to the marine environment,” she said. “[The sonic blasts] can occur as frequently as every 10 seconds, for weeks to months. This can become a continuous, long-term disruption to the processes of our marine organisms.”
Deignan said that while there has not been a lot of scientific study, some studies have shown that in areas where testing occurred, fish catches have declined.
“Testing can be harmful to fish eggs and larvae, and eventually, to adult fish,” she said. “All marine mammal specialists have stood up and said, ‘We know [testing] is harmful and disruptive.”
Many concerns about the adverse impact of offshore seismic testing are not supported by data, said Bob Gisiner, director of marine environmental science and biology for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors. Gisiner intends to speak against the proposed resolution at Tuesday’s meeting.
“We have statements from the CEO and director of BOEM [Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management] and statements from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] Fisheries, all saying the same thing. There has never been a documented impact to commercial fisheries [from seismic testing],” he said Tuesday. “It has been used around the world for decades, in the Gulf of Mexico for 50 years.
“It’s puzzling, to say the least, that all this hoopla is being made about seismic testing."
Albert Eckel, executive director of N.C. Energy Forum, likewise emphasized the safety and usefulness of seismic surveying, and said it was premature to oppose the method of information gathering.
“It’s important to understand where our resource potential is,” he said. “Until we understand what’s out there, we are arguing about something we don’t know about.”
Eckel said that seismic tests have not been conducted off the North Carolina coast for more than 30 years, and the data gathered then is out of date.
“Seismic testing is important for a variety of things,” he added, citing such tests done for the National Science Foundation related to climate change and the need for seismic surveying for renewable energy projects such as offshore wind farms.
"You must know what's under the ocean floor to site a wind turbine," Eckel said. He also pointed out that the sites in question are more than 30 miles offshore and that tourists and local businesses would not even be aware of testing.
"There would be no impact upon us and upon marine mammals," Eckel added.
If tests are done and show potential for oil and gas offshore, exploration will be done in the safest way possible, Gisiner said, adding that there would be at least a decade between any seismic testing and actual bidding on leases.
"Why is the battle taking place in 2015 when we won't have results until at least 2025?" he asked. "It could all be moot. Don't the citizens of North Carolina deserve to be fully informed?"