Why Florida Needs an Offshore Drilling Ban—One That’s Permanent

While the state can take solace in the recent moratorium extension, its waters are still at risk from the devastating impacts of seismic testing.

Daytona Beach, Florida

Credit: iStock

The people of the Sunshine State sighed with relief in September when a moratorium on offshore drilling in its waters was extended 10 years. Florida is the only Gulf state that doesn’t have the offshore oil industry dominating its coastal communities with its infrastructure of rigs, refineries, and pipelines or threatening its marine habitats with its safety inadequacies (except, of course, when the oil washes in from elsewhere, as it did in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster). And Floridians would like their state to stay that way.

But even though Florida’s beaches, wildlife, and lucrative tourist industries may be safe from local offshore drilling for another decade, the temporary ban doesn’t stop the oil industry from seismically exploring the state’s waters to see which areas it wants to target should the moratorium lift. In addition to helping usher in all the hazards of offshore drilling, seismic testing itself has dire consequences for marine wildlife. And while current federal permits for seismic testing on the Atlantic Coast expired at the end of November, oil and gas companies can still reapply for them.

“The best way to protect the region is to permanently prohibit seismic testing there,” says Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. Several bills introduced to Congress in recent years have proposed to do just that. The most recent, the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, would prohibit new leasing and seismic prospecting on the entire U.S. outer continental shelf, from Florida to Alaska.

Seismic exploration involves ships blasting compressed air into the ocean depths. This creates huge pulses of sound that echo back a scan of the geologic formations miles below the seafloor and hint at what they may contain. Studies show that such airgun testing can cause widespread harm to marine life—anything from tiny zooplankton and scallops to the world’s largest species, blue whales.

An environmental impact statement on seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast, released in 2014 by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, estimated that the practice could injure thousands of cetaceans and disrupt the natural behaviors of up to 2.5 million dolphins and 450,000 pilot whales every year. Within the area in question, which spans from Delaware to Florida, seismic surveys pose a serious risk to endangered whales—including the North Atlantic right whale, of which fewer than 400 are left.

For Florida’s Gulf Coast, it’s the endangered Bryde’s (pronounced BROO-dus) whale that is among the most at risk. Oil and gas development across the species’ historic range in the northern Gulf—off the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—has already forced the whales eastward into a pocket called DeSoto Canyon, off the panhandle. Like all baleen whales, Bryde’s whales use low-frequency sound to feed, mate, and communicate. By disrupting these essential behaviors, seismic surveys could make it even harder for the whales to thrive and ultimately lead to their extinction.

A dead oil-covered bird washed up on Pensacola Beach, Florida
Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy

“With only around 33 individuals remaining, the species has been painted into a corner of the Gulf,” says Chris Robbins, senior manager, science initiatives, at the Ocean Conservancy. “The noise, vessels, and potential oil spills associated with expanding drilling in this area would pose an unacceptable risk to one of the world’s most endangered whales.”

The oil and gas industry sees the oil reserves in federal waters off Florida’s Gulf Coast as its largest untapped eastern prospect. And Louisiana’s ubiquitous oil infrastructure—a massive complex of rigs, pipelines, refineries, ships, trucks, helicopters—would serve as a convenient extension to the region’s fossil-fuel venous system.

But public opinion in Florida is decidedly anti–offshore drilling, and for good reason. In April 2010, the oil giant BP’s gross negligence and willful misconduct led to an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and a drilled well, about 5,000 feet below the surface, spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf over the next 87 days. Brown oil covered 92,500 square miles of surface water and sullied 1,300 miles of coastline along five states, including Florida. The disaster killed 11 oil workers, thousands of marine mammals, and millions of birds. One assessment measured the overall impact to commercial, recreational, and marine fisheries upwards of $8 billion by 2020, with 22,000 jobs lost.

Rivaling BP’s colossal mess is the ongoing Taylor Energy disaster, which has been sending up to 4,500 gallons of oil into the Gulf every day for the past 16 years. This ongoing disaster is the result of an oil rig being destroyed by a hurricane—a type of storm that Florida’s coasts experience often.

Tourism accounts for at least 10 percent of Florida’s gross domestic product. In the Gulf Coast alone, fishing, tourism, and recreation contribute $17.5 billion annually to the state’s gross domestic product. In a 2018 ballot initiative, 69 percent of voters approved a state amendment to ban offshore drilling in the state’s waters. Federal waters, however, are a separate story. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a permanent ban on offshore drilling in federal waters off Florida’s Gulf Coast, but the moratorium extension came before the bill had moved to the Senate floor.

The political might of fossil fuels is atrophying, along with its place in the energy landscape. Mounting concern over the climate crisis, a decade’s long decrease in the price of crude oil, and its market’s susceptibility to production disruptions, including the COVID-19 pandemic, has loosened oil’s grip on the economy. A year ago, for instance, the idea that the Atlantic Coast pipeline, Dakota Access pipeline, and Keystone XL pipeline projects would screech to a halt within days of one another would be unfathomable. These vast infrastructure projects are part of an investment myth that’s been told for years, says Ned Harvey, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an organization that promotes the transition to a low-carbon energy economy. The opening of more of our seas to oil drilling simply doesn’t make sense in a climate-constrained world.

Before a single drop of oil is produced, an offshore oil project harms marine life through seismic surveys, disturbs the seafloor with the construction of rigs and pipelines, and accelerates coastal erosion by channeling through wetlands. Once drilling starts, so does the dumping of waste into the sea, the eventual spills, and finally, the burning of that oil, which exacerbates climate change. From start to finish, offshore drilling is a dirty business—and the risks are too high. Period.

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