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Offshore Drilling

Last year, I testified against offshore drilling in Washington, D.C., at a United States House of Representatives committee meeting.  Printed below is the outline of my testimony.

1.  Damage caused by seismic testing


Seismic testing involves firing loud sonic guns into the ocean floor every 16 seconds to read echoes from the bottom geology, with the tests taking place over miles of ocean for months at a time. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports sound from the sonic guns can be recorded from sites more than 1,860 miles away. I am not reassured by oil-industry claims that such will not adversely affect marine species.


The federal government tells us the impact would be “moderate” to marine mammals and turtles. What does that mean? 138,000 marine animals could be injured, and 13.6 million could have their migration, feeding, or other behavioral patterns disrupted. There will also be disruption of commercial and recreational fishing – sonic blasts can decrease catch rates of commercial fish species by an average of 50 percent over thousands of square miles. 


Imagine dynamite going off in your living room or in your backyard every 16 seconds for weeks at a time.  Most animals in the ocean use sound the way animals on land use eyesight; saturating their environment with noise will have an impact, and it defies common sense to say otherwise. ExxonMobil had to suspend seismic-blasts near Madagascar after more than 100 whales beached themselves.  And nobody knows seismic blasting will affect fish that spawn in the rivers and estuaries all along the East Coast.


Scientists disagree on whether the loud, repetitive underwater noises are lethal, but most do agree that the blasts could alter sea mammals’ long-term behavior, affecting their migration patterns, mating habits and even how they communicate with each other.


Two U.S. House members – Republican John Rutherford of Florida and Democrat Don Beyer of Virginia – cite a 2014 study that found reef fish off NC declined by 78% during seismic testing compared with peak hours when tests weren’t being conducted.


2.  Tests are proprietary to the companies


I often hear from drilling proponents that seismic tests are necessary in order to provide coastal communities with data about oil and gas deposits off their shores so they could decide whether it makes economic sense to move forward with drilling for those resources.  Information from those tests is considered proprietary, and is only available to the oil and gas industry. Local decision makers don’t have access to it. Not even members of Congress can get their hands on it.


3.  Damage associated with drilling.  There are two reasons why drilling itself would be bad


A.  Spills.


Accidents happen in a world where human error, mechanical imperfections and coastal hurricanes all play unexpected roles. And when the accident is an oil spill, the consequences are vastly magnified.


When you drill, you spill. It is inevitable.  The oil industry brags about its 99% safety record, and while that sounds pretty good, that 1% is pretty horrific for people living in the vicinity of a spill when it occurs.  A spill in a place like our estuary would be catastrophic. The federal gov’t’s Mineral Management Service predicts at least one oil spill a year for every 1,000 barrels in the Gulf of Mexico over the next 40 years – a spill of 10,000 barrels or more every three to four years.


We saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon rig spilled millions of barrels of oil into the gulf. It was a disaster, but thankfully the Gulf's bowl-like shape contained the spill in that region. A similar spill off the Atlantic Coast would be a disaster of epic proportions. If oil entered the Gulf Stream it would be forced up into the Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River Valley, the Gulf of Maine, the Grand Banks (some of the richest fishing grounds in the world).


B.  Damage by onshore infrastructure.


Even if a spill never occurs – and even the oil industry admits spills are inevitable – there’s still an adverse impact to our coast in that the land-based infrastructure necessary to support offshore drilling is dirty and highly industrial – and the infrastructure required to transport offshore oil can be devastating – for example, a series of canals built across Louisiana wetlands to transport oil has led to destruction of marshlands in the state. Our marshlands are a critical component of our ecosystem.

My thoughts in this regard were best expressed by my friend and colleague, SC State Sen. Chip Campsen: "The land-based infrastructure necessary to support offshore drilling is extensive, dirty and highly industrial. There simply is no place on South Carolina's coast appropriate for this kind of industrialization. Our coast is dominated by residential and resort development, wildlife refuges and extensive protective ecosystems."


4.  Economics   


Offshore drilling makes no economic sense. Oil shale, oil sands and hydraulic fracking have precipitated a revolution and contributed to an unprecedented supply of oil – an increase in petroleum production by 64% that has led the federal Energy Information Administration to predict that the nation will be a net energy exporter within a decade – for the first time since the 1970s. There’s no need for offshore oil production off South Carolina’s coast, especially in light of the costs noted above – better to treat offshore reserves as “money in the bank” for later generations. 


Oil and gas drilling and exploration off the East Coast could jeopardize the nearly 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in annual gross domestic product supported by healthy Atlantic ocean ecosystems, mainly through fishing, tourism and recreation. [Source: NOAA (2014) Economics: National Ocean Watch (ENOW) Explorer.] The consistent and long-term economic benefits generated from proven coastal industries far outweigh any potential jobs or short-term gains that offshore drilling could provide.


The Pentagon has expressed concerns about the impact of offshore drilling on the operations of its military bases. It’s crucial for both national security and South Carolina’s economic well-being that these bases maintain their missions and capabilities.


Optimistic estimates by the American Petroleum Institute contend that oil and gas drilling could bring the state of South Carolina about $2.7 billion — over a two-decade period.  That sounds like a fairly big number, but according to the PRT, tourists in South Carolina spent nearly ten times that amount — more than $20 billion — in 2015 alone, with about 60% being tourism to coastal areas.  Even the most lucrative oil and gas scenario would generate less than 1% of the economic impact tourism has on the state.


In 2014, tourism supported one of every 10 jobs in South Carolina. It generated well over $1 billion in direct tax revenue for the state and local governments. And tourism revenue has increased almost without exception every year for nearly three decades. There are no signs of that trend slowing, much less reversing itself. 


No federal structure is in place that would accrue any royalties to South Carolina, and there’s little chance Congress would approve one.  There’s a very real possibility that the federal government’s formula for “revenue sharing” would mean the revenues accrue to Washington while the states incur the risks, whether it’s the environmental and tourism damage from a spill, or wagering an investment in infrastructure to support an industry that gambles on the quantity and availability of the resource.


There's no economic case for opening new areas to offshore drilling — especially since the industry sits idle on more than 29 million acres of active leases.


That total amount of energy resources, according to Department of Interior estimates, would keep the U.S. in oil for 61 days and gas for two years. And there’s no guarantee that the drilling will pan out at all. Five wells have been drilled in this section of the Atlantic in the past, the last being in 1962. All were abandoned. The oil industry says that drilling techniques have vastly improved over the intervening years, and that may be true. But Cuba has put down four wells as recently as 2012, and all were found to be uneconomical, and have been capped.


6.  Alternative energy – climate change

We must wean ourselves from dirty, nonrenewable fossil fuels and invest more in renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal. The Atlantic oil-and-gas exploration plan undermines a push to reduce emissions that are heating up the planet (and its oceans). Global warming and sea-level rise are direct threats to South Carolina’s long-term economy.


External costs, or externalities, are never fully allocated to companies that drill for oil – and that gives such companies an unfair advantage over companies exploring and developing alternative sources of energy — sources that tend to be, by design, cleaner and more sustainable.


7.  Greed


125 East Coast municipalities, more than 1,200 elected officials, and an alliance representing more than 41,000 businesses and more than 500,000 fishing families officially said “no” to offshore oil exploration and/or drilling. I was all for draining the swamp in Washington, D.C., but this decision is covered with the greedy and dirty fingerprints of corporate interests.


8.  Bottom line: Who do we want to be?


Some politicians try to straddle the fence, saying they want the jobs the oil industry would bring, but they don’t want to do anything to harm our beaches and tourism. But you can’t have both. You cannot wholeheartedly protect the environment South Carolina is fortunate to enjoy, yet be willing to risk it for the unknown.  Seismic testing and oil drilling pose unknown threats to our coast that could include devastating damage to our beach communities and the water quality we enjoy. Oil and water should not mix.  Pick one or the other.


There is only one sure way to keep an oil disaster from happening of our coast and to keep our beautiful beaches safe and clean, no matter what the scientists and statistics claim: Keep the oil rigs away.


And there is one sure way of protecting our sea mammals and fish from an early death: Don’t allow seismic testing in our waters.


Because I strongly support protecting our beaches and our thriving tourism industry, I stand firmly opposed to any type of offshore oil drilling along the South Carolina coast. There is also no need to risk what might happen if seismic testing is allowed. Mankind has an obligation to protect sea life. A mistake that would devastate our marine life can’t be easily erased. Therefore, just don’t do it.

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