Winning Protections from Offshore Drilling, but Atlantic Still Threatened by Seismic Airgun Blasting

by Claire Douglass, Campaign Director for Climate and Energy, Oceana Category:

After years of hard work and loyalty to the fight against offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, Oceana and citizens along the East Coast have won a historic victory. This March, the Obama administration announced its decision to remove the Atlantic from its oil and gas leasing plan. It was not only a huge day for the oceans, but also for democracy. By yielding to the overwhelming opposition from East Coast communities, President Obama proved that good old-fashioned grassroots organizing makes all the difference.

It was not easy, and at first, it was a lonesome fight. Most cast it off as a losing battle, but Oceana jumped in when few other groups would take the plunge to fight Atlantic drilling. In 2008, the Bush administration lifted a longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling in the Atlantic. Done quietly, most East Coast communities had no idea their waters were vulnerable to the prospect of offshore drilling. Virtually unchallenged, President Obama proceeded with the past administration’s plans to re-open the Atlantic.

They didn’t see what was coming next.

Years ago, Oceana planted the seeds of a grassroots movement that would sweep across the East Coast. It all started in North Carolina, in a picturesque tourist destination called Kure Beach. In December 2013, their then-Mayor penned a letter supporting seismic airgun blasting – the first step in the process of offshore drilling and a harmful technique that uses extremely loud blasts of compressed air to map subsea oil and gas deposits. In his official capacity as Mayor, Dean Lambeth sent this letter to the federal government without the approval of Kure Beach residents or the town council. When residents caught wind of this, the town was outraged. At the following month’s Kure Beach council meeting, more than 300 people (in a town of less than 2,000 residents) showed up to protest the Mayor’s action and to defend their coast’s fate. They voiced their opposition, but still the Mayor did not listen.

The anti-drilling sentiment was infectious – nearby towns like Carolina Beach, Caswell Beach and Wrightsville Beach began to realize just how much was at stake. Not just North Carolina communities, but the entire Atlantic coast began to feel it: oil exploration could destroy our beautiful beaches, our bountiful marine resources, our booming tourism industry, and most importantly our quality of life. The spark of Kure Beach ignited a remarkable movement that knew no borders, no political party, nor socio-economic class.

When presented with the prospect of coastal industrialization and oil spills on Atlantic beaches, community members, business owners, policy makers, scientists, conservationists, fishermen, civic organizations, and even retired petroleum engineers united with one collective voice of opposition and told President Obama to protect our coast.

Thanks to the hard work of local stakeholders, our decision makers listened. The movement that first took root in North Carolina had blossomed along the east coast from Florida to Delaware. By March of this year, 110 East Coast municipalities, 101 members of congress, over 750 elected officials, and roughly 1,100 business interests had publicly opposed offshore drilling and/or seismic airgun blasting. Almost 30 percent of these 110 municipalities are located in North Carolina, and rightly so considering just how much of their capital offshore drilling would jeopardize: 51,000 jobs and nearly $2.2 billion in GDP rely on North Carolina’s healthy ocean ecosystems and pristine beaches. Administration officials explicitly said that citizen opposition directly influenced their decision to remove the Atlantic from the five-year plan: “The Proposed Program does not schedule any lease sales in the Mid- and South Atlantic Program Area due to current market dynamics, strong local opposition and conflicts with competing commercial and military ocean uses. – Dept. of Interior

This is a huge win. It is a curveball in the energy conversation, one that has been historically dominated by dirty oil interests. It’s also a promising sign that reflects U.S. commitments made in Paris last year.  Though the announcement is an encouraging step forward in protecting the Atlantic, not all of the risky exploration activities are off the table as seismic airgun blasting is still being pursued along the East Coast.

With offshore drilling out of the picture in the Atlantic, there is absolutely no reason to incur the damage caused by unnecessary seismic airgun blasting in the region. There is no reason to expose over 100,000 marine mammals to loud, damaging blasts and no reason to threaten healthy, thriving fisheries that support coastal economies. Why use a detrimental technique to search for oil and gas deposits when there is no possibility of extracting them in the near future and safer technologies exist?

We applaud the Obama administration for listening to coastal voices and showing America what a responsive government looks like – for supporting local constituents instead of Big Oil. We commend the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management for ushering in this process, and respecting the concerns of the people who would be most affected by offshore drilling. It’s a victory for people over politics, and a striking example of how devoted, hardworking citizens can still be heard in a system where money and partisanship often dictate the political landscape.

The fight certainly is not over, but the playing field has changed. Along with groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Surfrider Foundation, we won a decisive battle for the oceans. We will continue to ride this momentum head-on into the next challenge: preventing seismic airgun blasting off the Atlantic coast. Learn more now.

Claire Douglass is the Campaign Director for Climate and Energy focused on stopping the expansion of offshore drilling and seismic airgun exploration. Louis Bacon and The Moore Charitable Foundation‘s North Carolina affiliate, The Orton Foundation, are proud supporters of Oceana and their dedication to stop seismic testing in the Atlantic