With just two weeks left in office, President Obama added a major piece to his environmental legacy by denying pending permits for seismic exploration for offshore oil and gas in the Atlantic. This announcement capped off a years-long fight by SACE and many coastal organizations, residents, and businesses to protect the economy and way of life from the impacts of offshore drilling or exploration.
The decision finally laid to rest the issue that began in March 2012 when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal regulatory agency tasked with overseeing offshore energy development, proposed to offer permits to companies seeking to explore for offshore oil & gas in the Atlantic using seismic airgun technology.
Airguns work by blasting very loud rounds of air into the water to send waves of energy to penetrate the sea floor in order to survey subsurface geology. The noise created by airguns has the potential to severely disrupt, harm, or even kill sea life, especially marine mammals that rely on their hearing and echolocation for critical behaviors. SACE opposes seismic airgun surveys in the Atlantic because the exploration process can be highly detrimental to the marine environment and these surveys are a step toward eventual drilling and the pollution that can cause.
Since 2012, SACE has opposed seismic airgun blasting through formal comments and petitions, hosting educational events and public demonstrations—large and small—and visiting Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress about our concerns.
Concurrent with the proposal for seismic blasting in the Atlantic, President Obama’s administration also proposed opening the Atlantic to offshore drilling in January 2015, including vast waters off the coast of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Coastal residents and businesses were largely appalled at the idea that their shores would be negatively impacted by the industry. Of course offshore drilling brings with it the threat of catastrophic oil spills, but also residents cautioned against the day-to-day impacts of the industry: industrialization of the coast with pipelines and refineries, numerous smaller spills, impacts to fisheries and regional heritage foods, and others.
In response, constituents gathered at town halls, signed petitions, made phone calls, hosted events, and met with decision makers to state the case for coastal residents. Local governments passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling and seismic blasting–slowly at first, and then in droves. State and federal officials took the cue from their constituent communities and in turn opposed offshore drilling and seismic blasting as well, breaking conventional party lines and choosing good policy over politics. As ocean advocacy organization Oceana reports, to date, 121 East Coast local government and more than 1,200 elected officials have publicly opposed seismic airgun blasting and/or offshore drilling. Offshore drilling became a heated election issue in November 2015 and became a make-or-break position for candidates for local offices along the coast. The business community organized and last winter more than 1,000 east coast businesses–including 400+ from South Carolina–called on the Obama Administration to reverse course on offshore drilling.
This groundswell, years in the making, compelled the Obama Administration to withdraw the proposal for near term Atlantic offshore drilling in March 2016, which was a major victory for coastal residents. However even after coastal constituents made their opposition to drilling abundantly clear, the Obama Administration’s near term protection did not preclude seismic exploration. So the fight continued.
Public education sessions, demonstrations, and advocacy initiatives continued, asking Obama to stop seismic blasting and ensure longer lasting protections for the coast. And on January 6, 2017 he responded.
Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address left viewers with the impression that climate action is one of the legacies that Obama wishes to leave behind. At the time of that address, we posed the question of whether or not he would truly earn a climate legacy, specifically calling on the president to block further offshore drilling. His Administration’s decision on seismic testing bumps Obama decisively toward solidifying this legacy.
Obama’s decision to deny the seismic permits is a reflection of coastal Southerners’ deep bipartisan dedication to protecting the coast we know and love. The fight at times seemed to have long odds, as grassroots citizens groups stood toe-to-toe with the well-financed oil industry, but ultimately the power of representative democracy won the day as Southeastern states’ interests were protected for now.
Looking ahead, President-elect Trump’s administration may be poised to propose offshore drilling and seismic exploration for the Atlantic coast. While no formal plans will be released until after inauguration, SACE will be once again prepared to work with partners to once again fight and win the battle against offshore drilling, as we have in the past. To stay tuned for updates, sign up for SACE’s newsletters and alerts today.