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Outcry Along The Atlantic As Oil Exploration Considered


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Opponents in St. Augustine of oil and gas exploration. Photo by Amy Green

Across the Atlantic coast communities from Florida to New Jersey are speaking out against oil and natural gas exploration off their shores.

They’re concerned about seismic testing. For the first time in 30 years the Obama administration says it will consider the testing in the Atlantic Ocean.

That’s prompting leaders from beachy communities to Congress to voice alarm.

Hundreds of environmentalists gathered one recent blustery Saturday to march across St. Augustine’s historic Bridge of Lions to City Hall, where Mayor Nancy Shaver addressed the crowd.

“We are standing here with over 300 local, state, federal officials, 37 coastal communities from the Delaware Bay to Cape Canaveral and over 160 conservation and animal welfare organizations. We are not alone.”

Of all the states along the Atlantic coast where offshore drilling is being considered Florida is voicing the loudest opposition. Communities like St. Augustine are approving resolutions and sending letters to the Obama administration. Eleven members of the state’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the president.

Mayor Andrea Samuels of St. Augustine Beach was among the marchers. Her community voted last year to send a letter of opposition to the federal government.

“When you walk out to the beach I don’t think you want to be stepping over the tar balls. I don’t think you want to be looking out into the vista and seeing rigs.”

No one really knows how much oil and natural gas are out there. Seismic testing is how oil companies find it, and new technology now makes the testing more accurate. Ships tow what are called air guns through the ocean, sending blasts of sound deep underwater, like this.

“That sound is then transmitted through the sea floor and then echoed back up onto the receivers that they have on the ship, and they can actually detect what’s going on beneath the surface. So that’s the way they look for oil and gas underwater.”

Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium was among 75 marine scientists from around the globe who sent a letter of opposition to Obama this month. They say the sound would disrupt communication, navigation and reproduction among marine life.

“You have to remember all marine mammals, you can’t see very far underwater, right? So all marine mammals are acoustic creatures. So that means they require good sound fields. Their ability to hear and make sounds, they’re absolutely dependent on it for their survival.”

But states like Virginia and North Carolina want drilling in the Atlantic. Charles Ebinger, an energy expert at the Brookings Institution, says it comes down to one word, jobs.

“Generally they see it as a source of revenue and jobs at a time when most states still have major concerns about not having enough revenue and jobs to fund state government.”

He says drilling in the Atlantic, along with in the Gulf of Mexico, could transform the Southeast into an industry hub – with Florida as a lone hold-out.

“If you’re someone who wants revenue for the state of Florida I suppose Florida might still produce some equipment to service some of the other offshore areas. So there might be an opportunity for some industrial jobs in Florida.”

Right now the federal government is looking at applications from oil companies for permits to conduct the testing. Bill Brown of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says the testing would involve taking extra steps to protect marine life.

For instance the testing area includes a critical habitat near the Florida-Georgia border for endangered North American right whales. Right whales are the rarest of all large whales, and the measures would ban testing along the Georgia-Florida line where mothers raise their calves during the winter.

Brown says oil companies also wouldn’t be able to start the testing at full volume. They’d have to start low so that marine life could get out of the way.

“There is no documented scientific evidence that we have of population level impacts, by that I mean affects of the sound that actually compromises sustainability of populations.”

Back at the march in St. Augustine that’s not good enough for Erin Handy of Oceana, who organized the march.

“We do not want to see our beach communities turned into oil refinery communities. And if you’ve ever seen a picture of an oil refinery town from the Gulf coast it’s not a pretty sight. And that’s not something that people like the people here ever want to see on the coast of Florida or anywhere else along the Atlantic Ocean.”

Supporters say that won’t happen. They say the nation’s energy needs must be balanced with environmental concerns. The testing could start as soon as later this year.


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Amy Green

About Amy Green

Reporter and Producer

Amy Green covers the environment for 90.7 News. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a regular contributor for NPR, PEOPLE, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and many other top news organizations. Her in-progress book on the Everglades is under contract with Johns ... Read Full Bio »

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