Sunday, July 20, 2014

President Obama Approves Oil Exploration Off U.S. East Coast

North Atlantic Right Whales.  Photo: NOAA/NEFSC

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The Obama Administration announced on Friday a decision to allow the use of controversial seismic airguns to look for oil and gas deposits below the Atlantic Ocean floor off the U.S. East Coast from Delaware Bay to just south of Cape Canaveral, Florida from the inner edge of Federal waters along that coastline to 403 miles offshore.

"The use of seismic airguns is the first step to expanding dirty and dangerous offshore drilling to the Atlantic Ocean, bringing us one step closer to another disaster like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. During this process, our government will jeopardize the health of large numbers of dolphins and whales as well as commercial and recreational fisheries, tourism and coastal recreation – putting more than 730,000 jobs in the blast zone at risk," said Oceana campaign director Claire Douglass.

"According to the government’s own estimates, these dynamite-like blasts could injure and possibly kill up to 138,200 marine mammals, while disrupting the necessary activities of millions more. Impacts to marine mammals could include everything from temporary or permanent hearing loss, to disruption of vital behaviors like communicating, feeding, mating, calving and migrating, and masking of biologically important sounds."

But the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says that the decision has mitigation measures to protect marine life which include vessel strike avoidance measures, special closure areas to protect the main migratory route for the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, consideration of geographic separation of simultaneous seismic airgun surveys, and Passive Acoustic Monitoring to supplement visual observers and improve detection of marine mammals prior to and during seismic surveys.

“After thoroughly reviewing the analysis, coordinating with Federal agencies and considering extensive public input, the bureau has identified a path forward that addresses the need to update the nearly four-decade-old data in the region while protecting marine life and cultural sites,” said Acting BOEM Director Walter D. Cruickshank. “The bureau’s decision reflects a carefully analyzed and balanced approach that will allow us to increase our understanding of potential offshore resources while protecting the human, marine, and coastal environments.” 

The decision comes after more than 100 scientists called on President Obama and his administration to wait on new acoustic guidelines for marine mammals, which are currently in development by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  

“For more than 30 years, the Atlantic coast has been off limits to offshore drilling. Today, our government appears to be folding to the pressure of Big Oil and its big money," Douglas said.

Photo: Members of the Surfrider Foundation Protest Seismic Air Gun Testing.  Brevard Times / File

But the decision by the Obama Administration to open up the Atlantic to oil exploration shouldn't come as a surprise to environmentalists.  During a speech at Andrews Air Force Base in March of 2010, President Barack Obama said:

"...we’re announcing the expansion of offshore oil and gas exploration, but in ways that balance the need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America’s natural resources.  

Under the leadership of Secretary Salazar, we’ll employ new technologies that reduce the impact of oil exploration.  We’ll protect areas that are vital to tourism, the environment, and our national security.  And we’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.

That's why my administration will consider potential areas for development in the mid and south Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, while studying and protecting sensitive areas in the Arctic.  That’s why we’ll continue to support development of leased areas off the North Slope of Alaska, while protecting Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

There will be those who strongly disagree with this decision, including those who say we should not open any new areas to drilling.  But what I want to emphasize is that this announcement is part of a broader strategy that will move us from an economy that runs on fossil fuels and foreign oil to one that relies more on homegrown fuels and clean energy.  And the only way this transition will succeed is if it strengthens our economy in the short term and the long run.  To fail to recognize this reality would be a mistake."

Beyond the environmental concerns, the decision requires oil and gas explorers to address conflicts of their operations with NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD).  NASA has designated downrange danger zones and has identified patterns for recent debris cones from rocket tests that represent hazards for surface activities after such tests. There are also restricted areas for rocket testing, satellite launches, and other range mission activities.  

NASA restricted areas within the proposed exploration areas are offshore the Goddard Space Flight Center’s (GSFC’s) Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) in Virginia and offshore of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.    Also, five major DoD range complexes include periodic vessel access restrictions to portions each range complex.  

Oil and gas explorers would be required to notify designated DoD or NASA personnel of the nature and schedule for any pending exploration activity planned within military range complexes or NASA’s use areas.

Additionally, commercial fishing would be temporarily excluded from any exploration operation areas.


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