Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic? “That’s Not Who We Are.”

Southern communities prefer their coastlines sandy, beautiful, and bountiful—not filled with rigs and air guns blasting ships or covered in oil.

Folly Beach Island in Charleston, South Carolina

Credit: Richard Ellis/Alamy

When it looked like President Obama was going to bring oil drilling and seismic testing into Atlantic waters back in 2015, more than 100 coastal communities from Virginia to Georgia flew into action. “Our coasts are not for sale,” came the rallying cry.

A year before leaving office, Obama ended up protecting the mid- and south Atlantic from offshore drilling by removing oil and gas leases in the region for five years. The new guy, however, has been on a pro–fossil fuels tear since arriving in the Oval Office, and he already has eyes on the sea. In April, President Trump issued the “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” which would reconsider oil drilling in previous off-limits areas along the eastern coast and fast-track seismic surveying, an ecologically destructive method of locating oil reserves under the seafloor.

In the past three months, five permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic have been marching through the approval process at the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM). With the permits back on the table, seaside communities are again readying themselves for a fight.

“We don’t want to look like the Gulf coast,” says Frank Knapp, president of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast. The group, representing 41,000 businesses and more than 500,000 commercial fishing families from Maine to Florida, began meeting in 2016 to get BOEM to take offshore drilling out of its five-year plan.

As of today, in a rare display of bipartisan solidarity, 126 coastal communities along the entire Atlantic coast have signed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic testing. They see a sharp difference between the industrialized waters of the Gulf of Mexico and their own sandy tourist destinations—and hope to maintain the distinction. “That’s not who we are. That’s why the public along the coast is so adamant about stopping it,” adds Knapp.

Massive amounts of infrastructure—rigs, helicopters, ships, pipelines, trucks, and refineries—support the Gulf’s oil industry, which produces about 17 percent of the country’s crude oil and refines almost half of it. And, of course, the 2010 Gulf disaster, the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, is not far from the minds of southeasterners.

Male leatherback sea turtle off the southeastern shore
Credit: Michael Patrick O'Neill/Alamy

The southern Atlantic coast boasts long stretches of beaches with restaurants, hotels, and protected islands that lure millions of tourists, commercial and recreational fishermen, and scientists each year. According to a 2016 report from the research organization Center for the Blue Economy, 250,000 jobs across Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia depend on the Atlantic Ocean, which provides $14.5 billion annually to the region. A wondrous web of marine life also thrums in these seas, including species like the endangered North Atlantic right whale, leatherback sea turtles, and Atlantic sturgeon. Should the oil industry wade into the Atlantic and drill the seafloor, it could forever change the Southeast’s coastline, culture, and seascape.

The drillers’ first step would be seismic surveying, a process in which ships blast compressed air from huge air guns, creating powerful sound waves. As the sound bounces back to the ship, it helps map out information on geologic formations miles below the sea bottom and the possibility of oil and gas deposits within.

“Seismic is an incredibly disruptive activity,” says Michael Jasny, the director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “It silences whales over tens of thousands of square miles, and it harms fish and invertebrates. It has a sweeping effect on life in the sea.”

Marine mammals rely on hearing to communicate, feed, and breed (read: to survive). At close range, air gun blasting is like having dynamite detonating in your neighborhood every 10 seconds around the clock for months. At greater distances, those sound waves disperse through the water and become a wall of background noise.

A recent study in Nature found that seismic testing triggered an up to threefold increase in zooplankton mortality within 1.5 miles. Zooplankton are the foundation of a marine food web—so what happens to them can affect the whole ecosystem. For perspective, the researchers in that study were looking at the effects of a single, medium-size air gun going off, but as many as 40 air guns—which can be three times as big—are aboard some surveying ships.

Seismic air guns passing an oil drilling rig
Credit: Leo Francini/Alamy

Back in 2015, 75 marine scientists wrote a letter to President Obama warning how seismic testing would negatively affect the survival of fish and marine mammals in the region. In January, then-BOEM director Abigail Ross Hopper said the information gathered from seismic surveys in the Atlantic does not outweigh the risks to marine life. The BOEM’s current acting director, however, hasn’t said as much. In a recent statement, Walter D. Cruickshank said the bureau will take the environment and economy into account and “continue to keep the public informed as we renew our efforts to evaluate these permits.”

Even with approval from the BOEM, drilling companies will need an incidental harassment authorization, or IHA, through the National Marine Fisheries Service before they can proceed with seismic testing. (The service just extended the public comment period on the issue to July 21.)

“We are encouraged by the review and hope that the administration would allow the surveys to get underway,” says Gail Adams, spokesperson for the International Association of Geophysical Contractors, an industry trade group for seismic surveying companies. “We’ve waited for a long time, and it’s not just about our industry but about the American people.”

But the American people have spoken, particularly those living along the east coast—in communities like Charleston, Savannah, and Myrtle Beach—who stand to lose so much. So, too, have hundreds of businesses, fishermen, trade groups, and tourism associations. Even the Virginia Beach City Council, which voted in 2015 to remain neutral on the issue, now opposes seismic blasting and offshore drilling due to the local economic risk.

There’s also the very real fear of a spill. In Georgia, a seven-foot tide laps the shoreline, channeling twice a day into a carved-out portion of the coast known as the Georgia Bight and mixing with freshwater flowing in from rivers. A spill would pollute the ocean, the estuaries, and the rivers.

In addition to opening up the Atlantic to seismic testing and drilling, Trump is simultaneously looking to relax offshore safety measures put in place after the catastrophic BP blowout in the Gulf. Craig Harms, director of the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology at North Carolina State University, says another oil disaster could devastate local fisheries and economies, along with the densest and most diverse population of marine mammals in North America, right off Cape Hatteras.

Is it worth the risk? Scientists and coastal communities have spoken with a loud and resounding no.

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