As the Obama administration opens the door to offshore drilling, the oil industry is promising more jobs and less reliance on foreign oil. Some people who live along the Eastern Seaboard are saying, “no thanks.”
Coastal towns and cities in several states are formally opposing offshore drilling and oil exploration.
Tybee Island, Ga., is a short drive across the marsh from the historic city of Savannah. The island is dotted with hotels and tiny vacation cottages for tourists — and for about 3,000 people, it’s home.
“This is one of the most unique places I’ve ever seen,” Tybee City Councilman Paul Wolff says. Walking along the beach on an overcast day, he says a height limit for buildings helps preserve the ocean view.
“It’s a coastal community that hasn’t been overdeveloped,” he says.
Wolff worries about a federal proposal to open up areas at least 50 miles off the coast of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia to oil and gas development. Federal regulators say drilling wouldn’t happen for several years at least, but many companies want to start surveying for oil now.
Wolff says an offshore oil boom could threaten marine animals — and the island’s thriving tourism industry.
“We make a lot of money and a lot of folks on Tybee support their families by doing dolphin tours; I don’t want to take a chance on hurting that for anybody,” he says.
Earlier this year, Wolff sponsored a resolution opposing both offshore drilling and seismic air guns. That’s a technique that blasts sound waves into the ocean every 15 seconds or so, to search for oil and gas deposits.
Tybee’s city council passed the resolution unanimously, joining more than 30 others since last year on the Eastern Seaboard.
Another is Beaufort, S.C., where a small group of residents recently met in the mayor’s waterfront cottage to talk about how to oppose the oil industry.
Megan Feight, 28, grew up surfing and now owns a business in Beaufort. She recalls seeing the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill while flying over the Gulf of Mexico in an airplane.
“Seeing something like that in person gives you sort of the same feelings that you see when you see photographs or videos of it — it’s horrifying and real,” she says.
Even without an oil spill, some researchers worry that noise from seismic air guns may confuse marine animals that depend on sound for navigation.
Industry leaders like Richie Miller say they follow federal rules meant to protect wildlife. He’s the president of Spectrum Geo, an oil and gas survey firm based in Houston that’s applying to conduct some of the seismic tests.
“There are what we call PSOs, protected species observers, on the vessels, and they’re there solely to look for marine mammals. And if they get within a certain safety zone, then the vessels shut down,” he says.
As regulators consider requests from companies like Miller’s, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is hosting public meetings up and down the coast to discuss both offshore drilling and seismic testing.
“This has been piquing a lot of interest,” says John Filostrat, a spokesman for the agency.
“Seismic acquisition hasn’t been conducted on the Atlantic for three decades, and so we really don’t have up-to-date information on what’s out there,” he says.
What happens next is up to state and federal regulators. Coastal cities can only pass resolutions expressing opposition, without any force of law.
But Beaufort’s mayor, Billy Keyserling, says these local efforts are important.
“I think that the more towns which do represent bundles of people that are involved in sending the message and educating the public, the more difficult it’s gonna be,” he says.
If the plans move ahead, ships carrying seismic air guns could start their search for oil as early as this year.