23 Feb 2015: Opinion

Why U.S. East Coast Should
Stay Off-Limits to Oil Drilling

It’s not just the potential for a catastrophic spill that makes President Obama’s proposal to open Atlantic Ocean waters to oil exploration such a bad idea. What’s worse is the cumulative impact on coastal ecosystems that an active oil industry would bring.

by carl safina

When it comes to the Obama administration’s recent move to open portions of the Atlantic coast to oil exploration, I’m a bit out of synch with environmentalists who are worried about the big spill. They warn of another Deepwater Horizon or Exxon Valdez-type fiasco coming to the Southeast. But to me, it’s just about the day-to-day business of chasing oil, the wrong-headedness of it all.

It’s not that I don’t have some personal history with the major oil calamities of recent decades; I do. In my early teens the first televised images of oil-coated birds during the 1969 blowout off Santa Barbara shocked me and the nation, inspiring the first Earth Day and propelling a
Texas oil platform
Eddie Seal/Bloomberg
A Shell oil platform launches off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas.
burst of environmental laws. Twenty years later, at home working on a scientific paper, I heard the radio’s news of the Exxon Valdez’ rupture and of thousands of oiled birds and otters, and began sobbing at my desk. A decade later, I visited Cordova, Alaska, and saw how the pain and disruption from the spill had seeped into lives of the people there as thoroughly as the oil had seeped into shoreline sediments and the livers of waterfowl. And in 2010, I spent a lot of time along, on, and above the Gulf of Mexico while oil freely gushed from the hole that BP had made in our coastal soul. There was the failure of the ‘blowout preventer’ to prevent the blowout, the crazy “junk shot” attempt to jam golf balls and shredded tires down a gushing well against the force of the upward-shooting oil, the ghastly photo of the nearly unrecognizable brown pelican jacketed in crude as it died. My chronicle of that summer of anguish became the book A Sea in Flames.

I’ve been thinking about all this since President Obama last month proposed opening a large area off the Eastern Seaboard to oil exploration and potential drilling. Every five years, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“lands” meaning the ocean floor) requires that the president propose a plan for accessing offshore energy, and Atlantic drilling is part of Obama’s proposal. In December, he put the waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, off-limits to oil and gas development. Hail to the chief on that — the largest surviving salmon runs in the world, millions of fish annually, converge on that stellar bay. In the five-year proposal, announced in January, the Obama administration likewise closed some relatively small parts of the Beaufort
If you look at maps of the affected areas, the impression is of vast expanses of ocean newly open for business.
and Chukchi Seas off Alaska to oil and gas development, citing “world-class fisheries and stunning beauty.”

But his plan also would open new drilling leases in the central and western Gulf of Mexico. And most contentiously, the president wants to open Atlantic Ocean waters off Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, where drilling has never occurred and no exploration has been allowed since the 1980s. If you look at maps of the affected areas, the inescapable impression is of vast expanses of ocean newly open for business.

“This is a balanced proposal,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, acknowledging that it “would make available nearly 80 percent of the undiscovered technically recoverable resources.”

If 80/20 is “balanced,” then Obama is “consistent.” In 2008, candidate Obama had attacked John McCain’s proposal to expand offshore drilling, saying, “It would have long-term consequences for our coastlines ... When I’m president, I intend to keep in place the moratorium.” In early 2010, he erased that promise with a proposal to end the moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the Delaware to Florida. But weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon went up in flames and sank a mile to the seafloor. It also sank Obama’s East Coast plan, which he withdrew. Now it’s back.

During that summer of anguish in 2010 while I was witnessing the debacle in the Gulf, I got an invitation to appear on “The Colbert Report.” During the show, Stephen Colbert expressed alarm as a native South Carolinian that the oil might come up the coast and get into the South Carolina marshes. “Those are my marshes,” he said, sounding every bit the homeboy. I never thought the slick would leave the Gulf, and it didn’t. But Colbert’s concern about his beloved marshes is now grounded in possibility.

I’d seen Colbert’s marshes while researching my book on sea turtles. Sally Murphy of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources took me on an aerial survey of leatherback turtles migrating up the East Coast during springtime. Many of them weigh nearly half a ton and are six to eight feet long and three or four feet wide with five-foot flippers, so you can see them from the air. As we flew from the airport toward the ocean in a light plane, I wrote, “Soon, we’re over a mosaic of wooded islands inlaid into emerald marshes, grouted with wriggling creeks, spanning expansively toward the coastal contour. The verdant sprawl of a blossoming summer, languid and luscious, stretches to the planetary curve.” They’re still the
The main disaster is the oil we don’t spill. It’s the daily grind of oil extraction.
most beautiful coastal marshes I’ve ever seen. It’d be nice if they could stay so.

I’ve also seen the Mississippi Delta from the air. I saw America’s greatest marshes lie dissected, bisected, and trisected, diced by long, straight artificial channels, all aids to access and shipping. For the vast multi-million-acre emerald marshes, it is death by a thousand cuts. Oil and gas companies have dug about 10,000 miles of canals through the oak and cypress forests, black mangroves, and green marshes, killing coastal forests and subjecting our greatest wetlands to steady erosion. Louisiana has lost more than 2,300 square miles of wetlands; each year, another 25 square miles of marsh disintegrate. Oil leak or no leak, everything about getting oil is perpetuating the most devastating disaster that’s hit America’s wetlands.

That’s why, as the oil was gushing in 2010, I came to the conclusion that the main disaster is the oil we don’t spill. It’s the daily grind of oil extraction. That’s why I find myself not worried so much about big accidents as about the day-to-day.

Sally Murphy, the sea turtle surveyor who’s now retired after 33 years, says, “People think we’re worried about spills. Mainly, it’s not a fear of a big spill. But everything else: the tanker traffic, the storage tanks, the increased highways, railways, the omnipresent smell of petrochemicals. You might get an occasional big spill,” she says, “but it’s the daily, chronic, minor spills that just pollute everything. Go to Houston, and you get the picture. It’s infrastructure, and port expansion. On this coast you’ve got Myrtle Beach, you’ve got the biosphere reserve, Cape Romaine and the ACE Basin’s protected areas and estuarine reserves, and south of that you’ve got all the resort islands. Tourism is our number one industry. So all the stuff that would be needed for oil drilling — where will it go?”

And then, yes, there is the possibility of a blowout or major spill. You can see from the BP spill, Murphy points out, that “when that stuff gets on every blade of grass in the marsh, there’s no getting it out. It’s in the sediments for decades. And our marshes are our most precious
The seashore towns and local officials are leading a charge against oil exploration.

The coast-state governors seem to want the jobs being dangled before their eyes, but right now the seashore towns and local officials are leading a charge against oil exploration. They’d like to keep the multi-billion-dollar tourism that comes for lovely shores and clean waters. The towns of Beaufort and Port Royal, South Carolina, have each passed a resolution objecting to oil exploration off the coast. The resolution notes in part that during explorations for oil, “seismic air-guns fire intense blasts of compressed air ... as frequently as every ten seconds, for days to weeks at a time and are loud enough to harm marine life.”

Although actual drilling wouldn’t happen for years, the seismic work is much closer to moving forward. A 2012 draft environmental impact statement estimated that the seismic surveys would cause millions of instances of harassment to whales and dolphins annually.

And yet to the concern that whales and dolphins may experience injury or pain, or be forced to flee feeding areas, chief environmental officer for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Bill Brown has noted that there is "no documented scientific evidence of noise from air guns ... adversely affecting marine animal populations."

I asked whale expert and conservationist Ken Balcomb about this seeming discrepancy. He was the first person to document the killing of whales by U.S. Navy sonar. “The population-level argument is definitely a weasel,” he


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said. “Brown must know that there are many cases of air-gun use leading to injury and death of marine mammals, but proving population-scale impacts is problematic in a field where obtaining such proof is not conducive to continued employment. If he doesn’t know that, he is in the wrong job.”

The Navy’s marine mammal kills are documented. Yet the ships and equipment used in geological and seismic exploration move much slower than Navy ships. So with seismic exploration, marine animals often have time to move away from the noise before they are in the zone of injury. Slowly ramping up air-gun noise is another way to let mammals get out of the area. But “the area” happens to be where they live and hunt for food. They’re there because it’s where they need to be.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell says, “We anticipate robust dialogue with stakeholders [about the off-shore drilling proposal].”

That’s our cue. None of this has to happen. Comments are due March 28.

Some analysts say we will never actually need this oil, that already-known reserves would take us well into catastrophic climate change and we’ll be off the stuff by then. The nonprofit group Oceana claims that wind would provide far more jobs, longer, without danger of spills. These claims seem suspect because the conclusions are what you’d expect given their source, just as petroleum companies argue that this oil is crucial. I do know, though, that thanks to oil industry lobbying and subsidies, we have built no viable clean alternative to oil. I think this is as good a place as any to stop the advance of the fossil fuel footprint. The jobs we get are the jobs we plan for. Let’s plan for clean energy, offshore and onshore, instead.

POSTED ON 23 Feb 2015 IN Climate Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Water Africa 


No doubt, our exploration and transpiration of fossil
fuels is just as bad as actually drilling or fracking for
it, storing of and transporting this energy around our
country is just polluting the hell out of our
waterways: https://creeklife.com/blog/refresher-

Posted by Mark Contorno on 23 Feb 2015

We have four oceans surrounding our nation,
three have been drilled for oil/gas extensively.
Three have had catastrophic oil spills that have
devastated the marine life and local economies.
Yes, there is oil in the Atlantic, it will create jobs,
but at what cost?

We already have healthy industries on the east
coast that produce millions of jobs: tourism and
fishing. Seismic testing and drilling could have
horrible consequences. Oceana has done study
that showed more new jobs would be created
from offshore wind jobs and more power would
be produced as well. These jobs would not be
subject to the whims of the price of oil, and the
wind will never stop blowing.

Current estimates from BOEM say there are 3.3
billion barrels in the Atlantic. Based on current
consumption of 19.9 million per day, this is 165
day supply!

Oil is a 20th century fuel. Let's find a 21st
century solution to our energy needs.

Posted by Robert Beringer on 23 Feb 2015

You said it all, as usual, Carl. The only thing left for
me to add is Mahalo and Aloha.
Posted by David Dinner on 24 Feb 2015

A small detail - is there even any oil on the Atlantic coast to drill?

the main "offshore" oil has been in the Gulf and has been drilled for decades. The main place that still does have offshore oil that is offlimits is near Santa Barbara, where the famous spill happened and there are wealthy Democrats nearby.

Offshore drilling, tar sands and fracking are being done because the easier to get oil is mostly over. In 1972, The Limits to Growth predicted that pollution would increase after peak resource extract as the dirtier, harder to get resources were accessed.

The reason we use fossil fuels is they are more concentrated than the alternatives, they have a higher Energy Return on Energy Invested. The main thing I've learned from using solar panels for more than two decades is they are great but won't substitute for concentrated energy created over millions of years. Living on our solar budget will power a much smaller, steady state economy, not our endless growth system that pretends the Earth is not round and finite.

I look forward to the day when anti-drilling activists correlate their activism with where oil is (and is not), and are willing to accept an accelerated arrival of rationing. And the anti-drilling efforts, ban fracking, Keystone XL campaign, etc. rarely hint that food should be relocalized, there are limits to growth, highway expansions should be stopped, etc.

Offshore drilling on a Swift Boat:geology is more important than the politics of blame

Posted by Mark Robinowitz on 25 Feb 2015

"I do know, though, that thanks to oil industry lobbying and subsidies, we have built no viable clean alternative to oil."

Well, that and the fact that no clean alternative to oil is economically viable.

Also, "homeboy" is a black terminology. Colbert is less "homeboy" than "ol' boy."

Posted by Big Al on 04 Mar 2015

It seems the author has done half of his
research. BOEM (the Bureau of Ocean Energy
Management) requires all seismic companies
operating in deep water to slowly bring air gun
arrays volumes up to full volume. In this, he is
correct, as was the reason given. All seismic
vessels are also required to have dedicated 24/7
surveillance and if mammals or certain other sea
life (primarily turtles) are spotted within a given
distance of the air gun source, the sources are
shut down. During hours of darkness or low
visibility, a PAM system (passive acoustic
monitoring) is required. All sightings are
reported and because of the regulations
requiring lookouts, much more data regarding
the movement and behavior of these animals as
well as secondary marine life and birds is known.
The observers are third-party and unaffiliated
with the oil/oil field services companies and often
are marine biologists with at least a B.S. degree.
These individuals would not hesitate to report an
injury to an animal as most, if not all, of them
feel they are here to protect the wildlife, not the
oil companies.

The author has tried to insinuate that the seismic
source is potentially fatal to marine life by
mentioning it in the same paragraph as the Navy
testing of its sonar systems. The two energy
sources have very little in common. The Navy
uses sonar with a much higher frequency and
power. This is due to the fact that, as frequency
goes up, the signal strength is attenuated more.
The seismic signal, on the other hand, is a much
lower frequency. To give a layman's example, a
stereo system broadcasting two frequencies at
the same power, one very high frequency, one
low frequency (bass). You can hear (or more
often feel) the bass from much further away. If
you don't like the music, it can be annoying.
That same signal strength in high frequency will
damage your hearing very quickly, can shatter
glass, etc. The higher frequencies can be
physically painful. It is much more damaging, but
it dampens easier so it doesn't travel as far. I
would say the "whale expert" consulted may
know the biology of whales and quite possibly
their migration routes and food sources, but may
need to audit a basic physics course to
understand how various energy sources effect
biological entities differently.

As for Navy reporting of sonar kills vs the oil and
gas industry, the Navy covers up the majority of
what it does under the blanket of national
security. The oil and gas industry has no such
protection along with a huge number of on-
lookers. In over 40 years of use, there has not
been a single confirmed instance of a marine
mammal being injured by the energy from an
airgun seismic source. There have been a
multitude of observations of dolphins playing in
the air gun source while it is discharging (prior to
the shut-down regulations). It should be noted
that dynamite, water guns, and other seismic
sources are NOT as eco-friendly and have been
known to cause fish kills and injure marine
mammals which is why they are no longer used
in deep water marine seismic operations.

While there may be valid reasons for prohibiting
oil exploration on the Atlantic coast line the
seismic energy damaging or killing marine
mammals isn't one of them. If anything, the
annoyance of it may cause certain species to
alter their migration routes and feeding
schedules to avoid the noise as an annoyance.
This is a valid and documented behavior and
may be enough to say "No Exploring". The
threat and likelihood of a spill from the drilling
and production is also a valid reason. Just
please get facts correct before writing an opinion
piece like this.

In the end, this will be a political battle where the
normally quiet majority may speak out. Oil will
continue to be a necessity for modern life for teh
foreseeable future. If we don't look in new areas
for it, we become reliant on foreign supplies
which hurts our economy and our national
security. We become hostage to others who
control costs at a whim (aka OPEC, how quickly
we forget the 70's crisis and the more recent
price spikes of $4-$5/gallon). Those artificially
high prices did have one benefit, it gave the
American people a taste of energy
independence. The repercussions of becoming
dependent again may be too much for the
politicians. But if prices stay low (because OPEC
isn't limiting their production) the oil from the
Dakota's and deep water Gulf of Mexico become
too expensive to produce. A less costly source
of domestic oil then has to be found.

In short, if you don't want oil production in your
backyard you have two choices, either give up
all of your vehicles, plastics and just about
everything else that makes modern life possible
or become subservient to foreign powers and
industries. At the very least, if we produce our
own oil, we can legislate to set limits and control
what happens.
Posted by Bill Freemont on 06 Mar 2015

Many people knowledgeable about whale and dolphin behavior disagree with Mr. Freemont’s claim that seismic testing for oil will not affect the behavior of marine mammals and their feeding activities. The undersigned last week (March 5) sent this letter to President Obama: http://news.neaq.org/2015/03/full-text-letter-urging-president-to.html

Posted by Carl Safina on 09 Mar 2015

Please re-read what I posted. I never said that the seismic sources did not alter the behaviour. Quite the contrary. Quoting from my own post:

"If anything, the annoyance of it may cause certain species to alter their migration routes and feeding schedules to avoid the noise as an annoyance.

This is a valid and documented behavior and may be enough to say "No Exploring". The threat and likelihood of a spill from the drilling and production is also a valid reason."

I am neither advocating for or against the exploration of petroleum resources on the Atlantic seaboard. Only trying to get the facts to the public rather than sensationalizing an already hot topic.

Posted by Bill Freemont on 13 Mar 2015

Authoritative sources ("The Economist," for one) make it clear that exports of fossil fuels from the U.S. are projected to be skyrocketing over coming decades. (See a Economist graph "Fuels Rush Out.")

Two years ago, according to the Federal Energy Information Agency, U.S. fossil-fuel production exceeded imports and has gone on to exceed them since.

It is contrary to public welfare, and to national interest as well, to be producing still more fossil fuels for opportunistic export, especially as we face a global glut of such fuels and a climate being overheated by burning them.

In effect, it appears that the goal of 'energy independence' has suspiciously drifted into the realm of 'energy extravagance' for the dubious benefit of foreign markets and those who will profit from them.

All of this suggests a profound need to reconsider public interest in relation to U.S. national energy policy. As our government continues to subsidize fossil fuels at six times the rate of climate-protecting and job-creating renewable energy sources, surely we must prevent more harm to the public and public resources that is caused by indulging the fossil fuel industry.

It is time for logic to be applied in redefining the public interest. We can no longer afford the fossil-fuel tail to be wagging the national dog.
Posted by David Kyler, Center for a Sustainable Coast on 23 Mar 2015


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Carl Safina, a marine biologist, is the founding president of The Safina Center (formerly known as the Blue Ocean Institute) and a research professor at Stony Brook University. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about the tons of trash covering the remote shores of Alaska and what is needed to save the bluefin tuna.



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