News Column

Obama opens East Coast to oil search

July 19, 2014

By Sammy Fretwell, The State (Columbia, S.C.)

July 19--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina's coast, along with the rest of the Eastern Seaboard, is being opened to offshore oil and gas exploration, but a decision by the Obama administration Friday sparked renewed debate about how the venture could affect tourism and marine life.

If deep deposits are found along South Carolina's coast, it could lead to drilling in the waters off Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Hilton Head Island, major vacation spots that anchor the state's $17 billion tourism economy.

The administration's decision Friday approved the hotly contested practice of using sonic cannons to pinpoint energy deposits deep beneath the ocean floor, a method that can be dangerous to whales, dolphins and other marine life.

Sonic cannons shoot sound waves 100 times louder than a jet engine through waters shared by endangered whales and turtles. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management disclosed its final approval first to The Associated Press ahead of an announcement later Friday.

The approval opens the coast from Delaware to Florida to exploration by energy companies. The companies are preparing to apply for drilling leases in 2018, when a moratorium is set to expire, the wire service reported. The federal government says it can minimize deaths and injuries to marine life.

"The bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites," acting BOEM Director Walter Cruickshank said. "The bureau's decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine and coastal environments."

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and many of her fellow Republican leaders support searching offshore for oil and gas, which backers say could eventually lead to drilling that would make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. They also said it could boost South Carolina's economy through fossil fuel revenues and new jobs.

Haley was not available Friday, but said in a letter last month to the federal government that offshore oil and gas leasing "can potentially unleash American's untapped energy resources off our coasts. This would not only be a tremendous economic boon to South Carolina, but also go a long way toward securing America's energy independence."

Attempts to reach Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Democrat who is challenging Haley in this fall's election, were unsuccessful. He has spoken against offshore drilling in the past.

Former Gov. Mark Sanford, now a Republican member of Congress from Charleston, said Friday he has no objections to the president's decision. The search will help determine whether there are any appreciable amounts of oil and gas of the state's coast, he said.

"At least then you have a stronger feel of whether there's any need to explore" further, Sanford said in an email. "It may make it all a moot point."

Past studies have not indicated much oil and gas exist off the coast, but those reports are old and done with less sophisticated methods of looking for the fossil fuels, some geologists and drilling boosters say.

But an environmentalist, a coastal mayor and dolphin protection advocate criticized the administration's decision, saying it's too risky for coastal waters and marine mammals. The increased abundance of domestic oil and gas makes the venture even less worthwhile, the state Sierra Club'sSusan Corbett said.

"Louisiana has experienced the negative aspects of drilling for oil: the gulf is polluted," Corbett said. "The beaches have been impaired in some places. We would hate to see this be carried over to the Atlantic coast when we haven't exhausted all other ways to find energy for our country."

Former state Rep. Billy Keyserling, a Democrat who is now mayor of Beaufort, said he's disappointed in the decision.

"Our beaches and our coastline are the golden nuggets of our largest industry, which is tourism," he said. "So why in the world would you want to put any of that at risk? It's the same mentality that has said the best we can do is accept other people's nuclear waste (at a landfill) in South Carolina.

"If they find anything, they will start drilling and we are exposed."

Mark Berman, a former Myrtle Beach resident who is an associate director at the Earth Island Institute in California, said South Carolina has plenty of dolphins and whales that will suffer when sonic cannons are used to find oil and gas.

"If they start sonic testing, this could cause some of these marine mammals to strand on the beach because their navigation is all messed up," said Berman, who led efforts in the 1980s to protect dolphins in South Carolina. "Their hearing is very sensitive to these" devices.

Despite concerns, sonic cannons already are in use in the western Gulf of Mexico, off Alaska and other offshore oil operations around the world. They are towed behind boats, sending strong pulses of sound into the ocean every 10 seconds or so. The pulses reverberate beneath the sea floor and bounce back to the surface, where they are measured by hydrophones. Computers then translate the data into high resolution, three-dimensional images.

The sonic cannons are often fired continually for weeks or months, and multiple mapping projects are expected to be operating simultaneously as companies gather competitive data. To get permits for this work, companies will need whale-spotting observers onboard, and undersea acoustic tests will be required before each mapping trip. Certain habitats will be closed during birthing or feeding seasons.

Nationally, more than 120,000 people or groups sent comments to the government, which held hearings and spent years developing these rules. The bureau's environmental impact study estimates that more than 138,000 sea creatures could be harmed, including nine of the 500 north Atlantic right whales remaining in the world.

The area of the Atlantic being opened has been closed to oil exploration since the 1980s, when some exploratory wells were drilled. It has never had significant offshore production. And now, with advances in undersea mapping technology, companies expect to be able to pinpoint significant oil and gas reserves.

More than 16 communities from Florida to New Jersey have passed resolutions opposing or raising concerns about the seismic testing and the offshore drilling it will enable. In St. Augustine in north Florida, beach tourism and fishing fuel the economy, and rare turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.

While some states pass drilling bans, the area being studied is farther offshore in federal waters -- beyond the reach of state law.

"Florida has already felt the devastating effects of an uncontrolled oil release with the Deepwater Horizon event, of which cleanup efforts are still ongoing," said John Morris, a county commissioner whose constituency includes St. Augustine Beach. "Any oil spill, large or small, off the coast of St. Johns County, would greatly affect the county's economy."

Associated Press writer Jason Dearen contributed to this story.

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(c)2014 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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